The Baghdad shuffle

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Extricating the US from Iraq will take more than building up an Iraqi army and holding elections. Those goals are being met. The final act is leaving a government of Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds that can run an army, hold elections, and not self-destruct.

Two months after the Dec. 15 elections, the winning political parties have yet to agree on who will govern Iraq. The slow horse-trading for ministerial positions can be expected in a postdictatorship and nascent democracy, one beset with daily bombings.

On Sunday, nonetheless, a coalition of Shiite parties, which holds 130 of 275 seats in the new parliament, and is known as the United Iraqi Alliance, nominated someone to be prime minister who, so far, has proven to be more a divider than a unifier.

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Ibrahim Jaafari, who has been interim prime minister for nine months, has not cracked down on the killings of Sunnis by Shiite militias. He won the nomination in a close vote within the Shiite alliance because of critical backing from the radical anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. He's also done little to resolve the Kurdish interest in the oil-rich city of Kirkuk. And his past ties to Iran's ruling clerics during the reign of Saddam Hussein make him suspicious in Sunni eyes, and perhaps in Washington's as well.

Such steps matter for the exit timing of US forces, and also to whether President Bush's uneven handling of postinvasion Iraq will be an issue in the 2006 races for Congress. A wobbly, divisive government in Baghdad wouldn't be capable of running an effective, unified Iraqi military against local militias, terrorists, or Sunni insurgents. Such an army needs strong support from the civilian side.

But in Iraq, sometimes one step back can lead to two steps forward.

To balance the expected selection of Mr. Jaafari as prime minister, the US needs to use the influence of its billions in aid money to Iraq and persuade Shiite leaders to back better choices for other high-level posts, especially the key posts of interior minister and defense. Such posts should not be used as another means of sectarian warfare or as a jobs program for one political group.

Perhaps Shiite leaders are worried that the US has boosted Sunni politicians too much in the past year in order to get them to stop supporting insurgents. Or they worry that Hussein's former Baathists among the Sunnis might try to take power. Sunni parties did win a presence in parliament about equal to their 20 percent minority status in Iraq.

Or perhaps Iran's influence with Iraq's Shiites has impelled the Shiite alliance to stay unified and push hard for political dominance in Baghdad.

The US must dance carefully between the competing political parties without playing the bully. Still, if it is firm in using its leverage, it can leave behind a stable and democratic government, one clear of influence from Iran.

It's quite possible, though, that the difficulties of governing Iraq will quickly overwhelm even a well-balanced government, causing it to fall, and opening up a new set of negotiations for power sharing.

These are delicate days for Iraq's future and Mr. Bush's bold experiment to democratize the Middle East. Iraqis need to put democracy first, and their other allegiances second.

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