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A good year in Iraq

Wednesday, December 22, 2010; 8:37 PM

AT THE beginning of this year, Iraq's fragile new political order faced a momentous challenge. The country needed to hold credible democratic elections at a time when its army was still battling al-Qaeda and other domestic insurgents. The winners had to form a government in spite of deep rifts among leaders and sects, who just three years ago were fighting a civil war. And all this had to happen even as the United States reduced its troops from 150,000 to 50,000 and ended combat operations for those who remained.

The result was a long, painful, contentious, confusing and sometimes bloody year. But when Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki presented his new government to parliament on Tuesday, Iraq could fairly be said to have passed a major test. It is not yet the peaceful Arab democracy and force for good in the Middle East that President George W. Bush imagined when he decided on invasion eight years ago. But in the past 12 months it has taken some big steps in the right direction.

First was the election, which was judged free and fair - a rare event in the Middle East and a big contrast with recent balloting in Iran, Egypt and Afghanistan. The result was a tricky deadlock, in which no party held a majority in parliament and the winner of the most votes, a Sunni coalition, had no realistic chance to form a government. Iraq's neighbors, whose rulers have little understanding or respect for democratic processes, lined up behind competing favorites even as al-Qaeda tried to trigger another civil war.

Somehow, the country's oft-maligned leaders worked their way through all this, with help from the Obama administration. The coalition Mr. Maliki presented Tuesday was led by Shiite parties but handed major positions to Sunnis and Kurds. Sunnis serve or will be named as deputy prime minister, defense minister and speaker of parliament. Measures to integrate former Sunni militiamen into the security forces or other government jobs have finally been implemented. Fears that Mr. Maliki will establish a dictatorship look, at least for now, to be exaggerated.

Violence, meanwhile, has dwindled to the lowest level Iraq probably has known in decades. In September 2006 the Web site iCasualties. org recorded more than 3,300 civilian deaths from violence; this month so far it has counted 62, making Iraq a far safer country than Mexico. The economy is nearing a tipping point: Foreign oil companies are refurbishing the fields of southern Iraq, and the city of Basra, a militia-ruled jungle four years ago, is beginning to boom.

It's still too early to draw conclusions about Iraq, though many opponents of the war did so long ago. Mr. Maliki's government could easily go wrong; the coming year, which could end with the withdrawal of all remaining U.S. troops, will likely be just as challenging as this one. But the country's political class has repeatedly chosen democracy over dictatorship and accommodation over violence. If that keeps up, a rough version of Mr. Bush's dream may yet come true.

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