POLITICAL reconciliation in Iraq has a way of perpetually receding from the legal and political frameworks that are built for it. The pattern was set more than two years ago, when Iraqi leaders announced agreement on a new constitution but buried in its text fundamental differences over federalism, the distribution of oil revenue, the role of Islam in the state and other matters. Since then, often under pressure from the Bush administration, breakthroughs on oil sharing or regional powers have been proclaimed; on close inspection, they reveal the same unresolved differences among Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds.
The new law on rehabilitation of Baath Party members that was passed by the Iraqi parliament last week has the same weakness. Though the adoption of such legislation has been regarded as one of the principal benchmarks of Iraqi political progress, the Shiite government and Sunni leaders once again appeared to have agreed on a text that papers over rather than resolves key differences. Some former members of Saddam Hussein's party would be given pensions and others chances at state jobs. Yet, taken literally, the law would exclude many Sunnis from Iraq's army and security forces, including thousands who are now serving or seeking to enroll -- a huge step in the wrong direction. Revealingly, the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad issued a statement saying that the proof of the law would be in its implementation; in other words, the underlying problem of Shiite resistance to sharing power with Sunnis has yet to be overcome.
The achingly incremental progress doesn't mean the United States should abandon its attempts to push Iraqis toward accords; eventually, some settlement among Iraq's competing sects is likely, though it may be years away. It does mean that it makes sense for American leaders to focus their efforts less, for now, on national political pacts and more on promoting progress within regions. Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker has rightly identified the staging of provincial elections as a priority; these would facilitate the emergence of new leaders, especially in Sunni areas, who could help to consolidate the gains in security made during the last year. The catch is that to hold regional elections, a national consensus on the rules as well as the powers of local governments is necessary. So the administration must press Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, President Jalal Talabani and the other members of what has been an ad hoc five-member leadership group to eliminate the bottleneck.
Limited and over-promoted as it was, the vote on the Baath Party legislation also provided a contrast to developments in Iraq a year ago, when a full-scale civil war between Sunnis and Shiites appeared to be unstoppable. To a large extent, the sectarian violence has subsided; most of the killings occurring now stem from the attempt of a reeling al-Qaeda to reassert itself. The worst mistake the United States could make would be to allow its frustration with Iraqi political leaders to cause it to abandon the military strategy that has delivered that progress. As long as Baghdad neighborhoods are continuing to recover, refugees are trickling home, and Sunni and Shiite militias are helping to keep the peace rather than hunting each other, the U.S. mission in Iraq will be serving a vital purpose.