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David Ignatius

Turning a Political Corner

By David Ignatius
Thursday, February 17, 2005; Page A25

BAGHDAD -- After a heroic election day comes the practical business of forming a stable government. And in that sense, the new Iraq is proving to be no different from any other democracy.

Iraqis are talking about politics this week, rather than suicide bombers. The political elite is dickering over who will get what job in the new government, rather than who will get killed by the insurgents. The public mood, at least judging from conversations with Iraqis here, is a bit lighter than when I visited Baghdad two months ago.

(Jalal Talabani, Leader Of The Patriotic Union Of Kurdistan, In )

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The underlying problems of Iraq remain, and they could still splinter the country into Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish enclaves. The national security forces could still collapse, leaving Iraqis no alternative but to turn to sectarian militias for protection. The insurgency and its daily carnage continue. And Iran, just over the border, has so thoroughly infiltrated its agents into Iraq that it could probably hold the new Iraqi government and its American benefactors hostage if it wanted to.

But for the moment, Iraq does seem to have turned a corner politically. The most telling sign is that the Sunni Muslims who mostly boycotted the political process are now said to be looking for ways to get back in. One prominent Iraqi describes a recent meeting with leading Sunni sheiks who complained that they had mistakenly assumed that the Americans would lose their nerve, postpone the elections and thereby enhance the power of the insurgents. Now the sheiks want a piece of the action.

Whether this Baghdad Spring continues depends largely on the wisdom of the leaders of the Shiite alliance that won nearly 50 percent of the vote. This week they are negotiating over who will get the top positions in the new government that was elected Jan. 30. But perhaps more important, they are debating ways that would give the Sunnis a role in the new government.

Various power-sharing formulas are making the rounds. Under one version, senior jobs would be allocated according to a point system. The Shiites would be guaranteed 50 percent of the points, with the rest split among Kurds, Sunnis and other minorities. Any such division would give the Sunnis more representation than their feeble vote turnout -- and might be enough to draw them into the governing process.

Here's a tip sheet for who'll get the top jobs, according to Iraqi and American political junkies: Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani will win the presidency in a runaway; Sunni tribal leader Ghazi Yawar, the current interim president, may eke out a win as parliament speaker; for the crucial job of prime minister, this week's hot prospect is Shiite Ibrahim Jafari, head of the Dawa Party, who reportedly has threatened to boycott the government if he doesn't get the job. And the peripatetic Ahmed Chalabi is making a late bid.

I discussed the transition with Mowaffak Rubaie, who has been serving as national security adviser in the interim government. A Shiite with close ties to Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Rubaie is likely to hold a post in the new government. The freewheeling political discussion was delightful for its ordinariness. It was what you'd find in any democratic country -- yet it would have been punished by torture or death under Saddam Hussein.

The new government will try to increase oil production by about 50 percent, says Rubaie, to about 3 million barrels a day by the end of this year. With the extra revenue, he explains, the government could double old-age pensions, pay compensation to the orphans and widows of Hussein's victims and pump money into housing and reconstruction.

Finding a balance between Islam and the state won't be as hard as some people fear, contends Rubaie. The transitional law approved a year ago by Sistani provides that Islam will be Iraq's state religion and a source for legislation -- but not the only one. And it balances Islamic law with a generous bill of rights. Rubaie predicts this compromise will hold in the new constitution.

On the crucial question of U.S. troop withdrawal, Rubaie argues that it's unnecessary to set any timetable, as some Sunnis have demanded. U.S. troops are permitted in the country until at least the end of the year under a U.N. resolution, he notes; the new government may decide to renew that mandate or end it. Still, Rubaie hopes that U.S. troops will pull back from major cities soon, so that their presence will be less visible and irritating to Iraqis.

Sistani has privately described the Americans as "the big guest," according to Rubaie. That implies two things -- that U.S. troops won't be staying forever, and that while they remain in Iraq, they should be treated with Arab hospitality and respect. Given the risks that Iraq could slide again toward the chaos of recent months, that's a formula that would probably work for the big guest too.


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