Iraq's Step Forward

Monday, April 24, 2006

IRAQ'S POLITICAL impasse lasted so long, and was so damaging, that virtually any resolution would have been welcome. As it is, the parliament's election over the weekend of a new president, speaker and deputies, and the nomination of Jawad al-Maliki as prime minister, is a decent outcome. By insisting on the departure of the current prime minister, Ibrahim al-Jafari, Iraq's fractious politicians managed to force accountability on a leader who had failed to improve conditions or even control the abuses of his own security forces. His successor quickly pledged to subdue the sectarian militias that are the biggest threat to the emerging political system. Mr. Maliki is reputed to be tougher and more decisive than his predecessor; at best, he could revive and strengthen the federal government at a moment when Iraq is in danger of splitting apart.

The obstacles to the consolidation of a democratic political system nevertheless remain daunting. Mr. Maliki still has to form a cabinet, something that will probably take most or all of the 30 days he has been allotted and which involves crucial decisions about control of the defense and interior ministries. Should he succeed he will then have to oversee even more difficult negotiations over revisions to the constitution; Iraqis have not yet agreed on such fundamental questions as how much power will be given to federal regions that may be established in the future or how they will share future oil revenue.

Despite his conciliatory remarks on Saturday, Mr. Maliki's record as a hard-line Shiite opponent of concessions to the Sunni minority does not bode well. His relations with the Bush administration are also tenuous. As an exile in Syria he opposed the U.S. invasion; he has publicly criticized U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, who has been a tireless broker of the political process.

If there is a reason for optimism, it is the demonstrable progress Iraq's sectarian leaders have made in the past year toward accommodation. A Sunni community that boycotted elections and only reluctantly accepted the fact that it is a minority has endorsed a Shiite prime minister. The Shiites have, in turn, effectively agreed to restrain their majority power by accepting a national security council composed of all the major groups that will make decisions by consensus.

The vital question is whether these painfully slow and incremental steps toward an Iraqi political accord are coming quickly enough to stop a parallel spiraling of sectarian violence. While the politicians were arguing, more than 1,000 Iraqis died at the hands of Sunni insurgents, foreign terrorists and Shiite militias. Over the weekend eight American soldiers were killed in violent attacks. The bodies of six more Iraqis slain execution-style were found in Baghdad yesterday morning. Though they have achieved a breakthrough, Iraq's democratic leaders still lag behind those who would settle the country's future by violence.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company