THE 11.9 MILLION Iraqis who voted in December's parliamentary election might be excused for wondering whether that democratic exercise will ever bring about a tangible change in their government. Two months after the vote, the country is still ruled by the deeply flawed interim administration established last year. Over the weekend came the news that Ibrahim Jafari, the weak and unpopular prime minister who has overseen that government, had been chosen by the Shiite coalition to form the new cabinet. Moreover, his ministers won't be named anytime soon: Iraq's fractious politicians have barely begun negotiations on a political accord that could extend across ethnic and religious lines. The choice of Mr. Jafari means that Iraqis won't see any meaningful consequences from their votes for a few more weeks, at least -- and that the job of would-be political brokers, such as the Bush administration, will be still harder.
Mr. Jafari won out over several other Shiite candidates for prime minister not because of his charisma or competence -- he is disturbingly short on both -- but because of deep-seated rivalries in his coalition, which controls just under half of the seats in the new parliament. The candidate of the strongest Shiite faction, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, was effectively checked by the supporters of the radical Baghdad-based cleric Moqtada Sadr. Some of Mr. Sadr's differences with the Supreme Council are potentially constructive: He opposes the council's dangerous plan to create a Shiite ministate in southern Iraq. Mr. Sadr also may be more open to including militant Sunni parties in the government, which would be an important step away from sectarian conflict.
Mr. Jafari's selection nevertheless will complicate the task of forming a "national unity" government, which is the outcome sought by the Bush administration. He is at odds with Kurdish leaders, who believe that he has been insufficiently supportive of their ambition to take control over the ethnically mixed city of Kirkuk. The U.S. ambassador in Baghdad, Zalmay Khalilzad, has rightly stressed the need to place nonsectarian politicians in charge of the defense and interior ministries. But the Supreme Council, which has used its control of the Interior Ministry to set up commando units and wage a murderous dirty war against the Sunni community, may be hardened in its determination to hold on to the position because of its failure to name a prime minister.
Mr. Khalilzad is doing his best to promote a national accord that addresses the legitimate concerns of the Sunnis. That could defuse the insurgency and head off the civil war that looms over Iraq. But given Iraq's powerful centrifugal forces, the ambassador could use more help, from Washington and beyond. The Bush administration has capably organized international coalitions to address the threats of Iran and North Korea; it has brought formidable pressure to bear on the Palestinians through the "quartet," which includes the European Union, the United Nations and Russia. Notwithstanding their divisions over the war three years ago, a large group of nations, including the members of NATO and most of the Arab Middle East, has a vital interest in pressing Iraqis to compromise. Now is the time for President Bush to mobilize that alliance, and every other bit of leverage he can muster. Iraq may not have another chance.