Now or never for Iraq’s leaders

The Iraqi government’s honeymoon of unwavering American support has ended.

Darren Bernard

The Iraqi government has three months. Just three more months to debate over flags, walk out of parliament sessions and bicker over details of good security plans, because even Republicans have finally lost their patience.

The three-month deadline is not mine. It is the time frame U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad, the Iraq Study Group, and Sen. John Warner, R-Va., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, have cited in public comments on the war. Even President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice have begun more loudly conditioning American support on some form of political progress.

As they should. Warner told reporters last week that Iraq is “simply drifting sideways,” becoming the latest in a string of war supporters to publicly question whether Iraq’s leaders have added any measure of stability to the nation. If the beginning of Ramadan is any indicator, the answer is “no.”

What happens if the Iraqi government cannot resolve key security and constitutional problems by year’s end? No one knows. Maybe a new plan for decentralizing the government; maybe – this could be particularly effective – Iraq’s leaders will lose their cushy residence in the Green Zone.

But if the security situation in Iraq really is coming to a head, Americans should welcome it. Iraq’s Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, a conservative Shiite, enjoys wide popularity among the Iraqi people, despite the ongoing violence. That means he has the political capital he needs to make politically delicate decisions – and there are plenty.

Iraqi leaders have made some progress on reconstruction efforts and security. Al-Maliki deserves credit for his new attempt at achieving security in the capital (neighborhood committees from all Iraqi sects), and for the very fact that Sunni, Shiite, and Kurdish leaders are all still sitting in the central government. The problem is he, as well as almost every other Iraqi leader, has yet to prove he is more loyal to the state than to his sect.

The host of problems facing Iraq’s leaders is almost overwhelming. Iran has bet its chips on civil war, which explains reports that it has begun arming both Shiite and Sunni death squads and militias. Corruption in Iraq’s many ministries – many of which are dominated by lackeys of the Shiite ruling party – only worsens Sunni feelings of disenfranchisement. When Iraqis call government hotlines to report suspicious activity or overt violence, which they are now doing in record numbers, the person on the other end of the line often refuses to pass on the tip. The reason why should be obvious.

Stopping the sectarian violence led by Shiite militias and Sunni insurgents will be another trick for the al-Maliki government. The violent Madhi Army, the Shiite militia loyal to Moqtada al-Sadr, had another scuffle with Iraqi and U.S. troops this weekend. Sunnis are wondering aloud whether al-Maliki, who depends on al-Sadr for political support, has the political will to disarm the group. These same Sunnis have questionable loyalties themselves – Iraq’s Sunni parliament speaker recently told reporters that people should “build a statue” for anyone who kills an American.

Add to that ever-greater separatist sentiment among Kurds, the increasing displacement of ordinary Iraqis from mixed-sect communities, and the pressing question of what to do with Iraq’s oil wealth and it does become a little daunting. Al-Maliki et al. don’t need to solve everything right away, but most of these issues feed into the ongoing violence, which is unacceptable.

What happens in the upcoming months in Iraq also depends on the results of next month’s midterm elections. Democrats have sufficiently proven they will not defer to the Bush administration on matters of national security. The only question is whether Democrats will spend more energy sabotaging current policy or criticizing the Bush administration in backward-looking investigations.

But forget what happens in November – al-Maliki’s honeymoon of unwavering American support has ended, which means even congressional Republicans are going to need evidence that progress is being made in Iraq. The human and political costs are just too great to continue trusting Iraq’s leadership to – eventually, one day – make tough but necessary compromises.

There is still hope this war may soon fulfill its original mission. Al-Maliki told Iraqi state television last week that the country’s security situation would be stable by year’s end, adding his government is in the final steps of “confronting the security challenge.”

Three months.

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