The selection of a compromise prime minister in Iraq is a major victory for that country’s fledgling political class, and for the Bush administration. Purveyors of doom on Iraq now have some explaining to do: If the country is in the midst of a full-scale civil war fatal to our project there, how is it that elected representatives of the major factions were able to sit down and hammer out an agreement on the top positions in a national unity government? Iraq pessimists act like they have a special immunity from ever having to recalibrate their view of the conflict, as they instead move on to the latest iteration of their metaphysical despair.
The deal on the prime minister brings within reach the Bush administration’s longtime goal of creating a government that includes all Iraqi factions and gets Sunni parties into the political process once and for all. The theory is that this will reduce violence by dragging elements of the Sunni insurgency into legitimate politics as well. Nice theories don’t always work out in Iraq, as we have learned over the last three years. But this one has a chance of success. Immediately after the war, the Sunnis didn’t have the political leadership of the Kurds, who had governed themselves for ten years, and the Shia, who quickly rallied around Ayatollah Sistani. No one claiming to speak for the Sunnis had any real legitimacy. But the Sunnis made the strategic choice to participate in last December’s elections, and now they have political leaders with real roots in their communities and sway over the men wielding guns and IEDs.
The negotiations over a prime minister were messy, dragged on too long, and represented a loss of momentum from the triumph of December 15 elections. But the final result is welcome. Former prime minister Ibrahim al-Jafaari, who two months ago had narrowly won the endorsement of the Shia parties to stay in office, is out of the job. The Bush administration viewed him as weak and incompetent, and so did the Kurds, the Sunnis, and even many Shia. It is a bit of a mystery how he managed to pull out his victory among the Shia parties in the first place. He was backed by the thug-cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who engaged in a power struggle with the U.S. over whether the prime minister would stay in power and–crucially–lost. The Shia coalition slowly realized that Jafaari was a non-starter given the opposition of the U.S. and Kurds and Sunnis, and picked another candidate, Jawad al-Maliki. This outcome is an important signal to the Sunnis: If they play in Iraqi politics, they can make a difference.
Maliki’s virtues shouldn’t be exaggerated. He comes from the same Islamist Dawa party as Jafaari, and has been cool to the U.S. But he is an Iraqi nationalist–an important quality given the dangerous Iranian influence in the country–and has a reputation as an experienced, skilled politician. He obviously has significant challenges ahead, foremost among them forming a government over the next 30 days in a very volatile political environment. It is crucial that clean and effective officials be put in charge of the ministries of defense and interior. If progress has been made in reconstituting an Iraqi army, the police are still in disarray, infiltrated by Shia thugs. Iraqis are much more comfortable opening their doors when the Americans come knocking than when the police do. That has to change. The Shia militias, who have contributed more than their share to the sectarian violence of late, will have to be put out of business eventually. This would have been easier to do a couple of years ago, but if militias can be defanged in Afghanistan, the same can happen in Iraq.
The political process is Iraq is the key to the country’s political future, which is why the deadlock in recent months was so discouraging. But it now looks like the Iraqi politicians were employing their usual MO of teetering on the brink of catastrophe before pulling back. They have a real chance now of forming a government that is legitimate (some people set off fireworks in the streets of Baghdad to mark the breakthrough) and inclusive. But even if the national element of the insurgency weakens, the foreign jihadists aren’t going away, and will continue their savage attempts to foment a civil war. The problems with Iraq’s economy and infrastructure, exacerbated by the violence, will also endure. But as long as Iraqi leaders are willing to compromise, and–however haltingly–to point the country forward, the catastrophic collapse sought by the terrorists will not happen. And victory, in the form of the establishment of a decent, stable government capable of defending itself, will remain in sight.