US (mostly) lets Iraq form its cabinet

Despite some visible pressuring this week, Washington has taken a light hand in steering the process - wisely, experts say.

It's taken nearly three months for Iraq's new leadership to put together a government that will last some eight months until December, when new elections - based on a constitution to be written by the fall - are to take place.

But the government of at least 32 ministers, which could finally be presented for the national assembly's approval Thursday after weeks of haggling among religious factions and political parties, is both a work of promise and of considerable foreboding, say Iraq experts and consultants who have been working with Iraqi leaders.

That the politically ascendant Shiites and Kurds made room for six Sunni ministers, despite their absence from January's elections and association with the former regime, demonstrates the kind of hard power-sharing necessary for national unity. The Sunnis' portfolio even includes the coveted defense minister slot.

Still, some Shiite leaders were holding out Wednesday for changes in some Sunni ministerial candidates, accusing them of close ties to the former Sunni-dominated regime of Saddam Hussein. At the same time, some experts fear that a kind of "government by numbers" so heavily focused on sectarian divides could portend years of instability and ineffective government.

For the most part, analysts agree that it's an imperfect political process the US has been right to leave basically to the Iraqis, despite some last-minute phone calls and high-profile public pressure from Washington to get a government going.

The US has wisely lifted the heavy thumb it pressed on the Iraqis during the occupation led by Paul Bremer, says Judith Yaphe, a former Iraq specialist for the CIA. She believes Washington needs to let the Iraqis sort out their own future and make their own mistakes. "It's like having a teenage driver," says Ms. Yaphe, now at the National Defense University in Washington. "The good news is your teenager can finally drive, but the bad news is your teenager can drive. At some point you have to let them loose. You can't script it."

This week Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at a Pentagon briefing that "we must have a cabinet appointed here very quickly." Earlier, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice offered similar public chiding. Such pressure is appropriate, especially given that the 140,000 US troops in Iraq continue to face daily attacks, experts say, but any additional "hand holding" risks complicating the American presence - especially if the situation remains unstable.

"The administration has been right not to try to micromanage this process as we have in the past," says Jon Alterman, an Iraq expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "The Iraqis have to feel this is theirs, and if they fail, they have to feel that the failure is theirs."

Mr. Alterman says past US involvement - and specifically a decade of strong support for Iraqi Kurdish aspirations - may have in fact exacerbated Iraq's interethnic tensions by emboldening one minority to hold out for all of its demands.

LISTING the Kurdish demands that will take center stage as the constitution-writing process gears up - including autonomy, oil-revenue sharing, and jurisdiction of the northern city of Kirkuk - Ms. Yaphe agrees that the Kurds could still emerge as a spoiler. "I don't think civil war is on the horizon, but I do worry that the Kurds could tip it by too aggressively pushing for their demands," she says.

What worries some experts is that Iraq, which in recent decades has moved away from ethnic divides, especially in urban areas, is witnessing a resurgence of ethnic polarization that has been encouraged by the political wrangling and could be cemented in the constitutional process. CSIS's Alterman says the emerging government is eerily reminiscent of Lebanon in the 1970s. "We should remember that sectarian politics there led to a civil war and a 29-year foreign occupation," he says. "If Lebanon is the model, it's not very encouraging."

But others say intensified identification with sectarian groups does not necessarily signal a slide to greater interethnic conflict and instability. "There's no question but that there's been a polarization of ethnic groups in Iraq, but that's quite common in postconflict situations," says Daniel Serwer, a postconflict expert at the US Institute of Peace. "The question is if it can be bridged now, and that's a tough one. But I don't think anything irreversible has happened that would lead to a breakup."

Mr. Serwer, who has spent time in Iraq recently advising leaders and political parties, says the government-forming process has gone too slowly and has contributed to a sense of instability - an atmosphere that he says insurgents have exploited. That said, no one should expect the insurgency to die down simply because a government is named, experts agree. Yaphe believes the recent uptick in insurgent violence has more to do with "a regrouping that's going on after some smart arrests we'd made" rather than any direct result from the long government impasse.

But Serwer says just getting a government up and running will help: It will begin to answer the Iraqi people's demands for a working government. "Each step in this process has in fact led to more legitimacy, and I think this will, too," he says. "If you compare where Iraq is now to a year ago, you have to say there's been progress, not in terms of security but in the legitimacy of governing institutions, and I think that will continue."

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