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Editorial

Gains and Risks in Iraq

Thursday, April 7, 2005; Page A30

IRAQIS ONCE AGAIN have defied their skeptics and taken an important step toward stabilizing their country under representative government. A political accord among parties representing the country's major ethnic and religious factions led yesterday to the election as president of Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani, representative of a people once slaughtered with chemical weapons by Saddam Hussein. A Sunni politician was elected speaker of the national assembly last Sunday; by this weekend, the second anniversary of the capture of Baghdad by U.S. forces, a new Shiite prime minister probably will have been chosen. This breakthrough was significant, and took many weeks, for precisely the reasons that pessimists said it couldn't happen: The interim Iraqi constitution forced the dominant Shiites and minority Kurds to reach a consensus, while political pragmatism drove them to include Sunnis in their deal. While the hard bargaining dragged on, the Bush administration wisely refrained from overt intervention. That means the choice of government sets a precedent of hard-headed cooperation among the Iraqi parties, one they will need if they are to cross the still-higher political hurdles that lie ahead.

The wide-open politicking, itself a welcome novelty in the Arab world, caused some to fret that Iraqis would again grow disillusioned after the high point of the Jan. 30 elections, or that Sunni insurgents would grow stronger. The opposite seems to be true. A poll taken in late February and early March showed that 60 percent of Iraqis believed the country is headed in the right direction, and almost as many expected the situation will "slowly" improve. According to reports by American, British and Iraqi commanders, insurgent activity has fallen off in recent weeks; coalition casualties in March were the lowest in more than a year. Since late March there have been four major encounters between Iraqi and U.S. forces and large groups of insurgents. But this too is mostly good news: Two of the battles were initiated by government forces, and all led to lopsided defeats for the insurgents. In one indication that some Sunni leaders have given up on armed resistance to the new political order, 60 members of the influential Association of Muslim Scholars last week ordered their supporters to join the Iraqi army.

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The challenges still to be met by Iraq's emerging leadership during the rest of this year are so daunting as to inspire anxiety in any outside observer. A new constitution is due by August; that must be followed by a referendum in which authorities will have to win a majority in at least some Sunni- and Kurdish-populated provinces. After that comes another national election for a permanent government. To reach this week's accord Shiite and Kurdish leaders put off potentially explosive problems that soon must be defused, like the future of the ethnically mixed city of Kirkuk. They still are at the beginning of their efforts to reach an accommodation with Sunnis and prepare a national army that can turn back the insurgency with less help from U.S. troops. Failure remains a distinct possibility, and the skeptics may eventually be proved correct. For now, however, the situation in Iraq looks better than it has since that first flush of military success two years ago -- and President Bush surely has learned enough since then not to mistake progress for "mission accomplished."


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