Let the Iraqis Bargain

By David Ignatius
Wednesday, April 5, 2006

Americans are getting impatient about the formation of a new Iraqi government. That's what Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told political leaders in Baghdad this week, and she was putting it mildly. But it would be folly if American impatience torpedoed the slow but real progress Iraqi leaders are making toward a government that could step back from the brink of civil war.

"We need to be patient to get it right," Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, told me in a telephone interview yesterday. "Their concept of time is not the same as ours. While we press them to hurry up, the American people also need to be patient."

Khalilzad recounted the items that the Iraqi political factions have agreed on in private negotiations over the past month. On Sunday, the leaders signed off on the last of these planks of a government of national unity. The Iraqis have saved the hardest issue for last -- the names of the politicians who will hold the top jobs. That bitter fight will play out over the next several weeks.

An example of what's in these unity documents is a passage that calls for "a timetable so the Iraqi forces assume the security tasks completely and end the mission of the multinational force in Iraq." That timetable language is vague, but it would allow the new government to say it is committed to ending the American occupation. Interestingly, U.S. officials said yesterday that this passage on troop withdrawal is consistent with Bush administration policy.

The political agreements are fragile, and they will be blown away if the factions can't form a government soon to put them in practice. Meanwhile, beyond the Green Zone, Iraqis are still being slaughtered every day in the streets. But given where Iraq was six months ago -- when Sunni and Shiite leaders were barely talking -- their agreement on the framework for a unity government is important. These negotiations may not succeed, but they are not a fairy-tale fantasy, as some critics argue.

"All the elements of the deal are there, up in the air, and they could come down and click into place," Kurdish leader Barham Salih told me by telephone from Iraq. "We have come to the real crunch."

Here's the framework for the unity government, as outlined by Khalilzad, who has attended nearly all of the meetings. First, the broad strokes: The Sunni leaders have accepted that the new government will operate under the Iraqi constitution and that it will be based on the results of last December's election, both of which reflect the reality that the Shiites are Iraq's largest religious group. The Shiites, in turn, have agreed that the new government will be guided by consensus among all the factions. And they have agreed to checks that will, in theory, prevent the key security ministries from being hijacked by Shiite militia groups.

To implement this consensual approach, the Iraqi factions agreed on two bodies that weren't mentioned in the constitution. They endorsed a 19-member consultative national security council, which represents all the political factions. And they agreed on a ministerial security council, which will have the Sunni deputy prime minister as its deputy chairman. Shiite leaders have tentatively agreed that the defense minister will be a Sunni. And for the key job of interior minister, the dominant Shiite faction, known as the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, appears ready to accept the replacement of one of its members by an independent Shiite, perhaps Qasim Dawood, a man acceptable to most Sunni leaders.

The real brawl lies ahead over who should be prime minister. Ibrahim al-Jafari, the interim prime minister, is fighting to hold on to his job. Kurdish and Sunni groups have opposed him, as has the Bush administration, arguing that he is too weak and too sectarian. This anti-Jafari coalition added a crucial new member Monday when the Supreme Council's top leaders formally told Jafari they will vote against him if the choice is thrown to the new parliament. That broke the unity of the Shiite alliance, cutting 50 to 70 votes from the 130 that Jafari had counted on, and it may doom his candidacy.

The day-to-day bargaining is taking place in Baghdad. But the X-factor in this delicate game is U.S. political support. Khalilzad could fail in his effort to midwife a unity government, and Iraq could spiral into full-blown civil war. But it would be crazy for an impatient America to talk itself into defeat and pull the plug prematurely. As Prince Turki al-Faisal, the Saudi ambassador to Washington, remarked this week: "America came to Iraq uninvited. You should not leave uninvited."


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