The recent renomination of Ibrahim al- Jaafari for prime minister of Iraq signals that negotiation over the shape of a new government has begun in earnest. The most important issue in this process for Iraq's future is control of the sword of the Iraqi state - its ministries of Defense and Interior. If Shiite political parties gain further control of Iraq's military and police, these crucial security forces will remain fractured along ethnic lines, successful state-building will be impossible, and continuing violence will be unavoidable. A Shiite bid for dominance, even in reaction to provocations such as the bombing of Shiite mosques, will only fuel further sectarian conflict.
The security forces of the Iraqi state are disproportionately Shiite and Kurdish. A major Shiite party controls the Ministry of Interior, while the American military relies on Kurdish troops because of their discipline and experience. These forces frequently deploy into both predominantly Sunni and ethnically divided areas, and some are suspected of acting as ethnic death squads. Shiite political parties are now pushing for control of both the Defense and Interior ministries in the new government. Many Sunni former soldiers and police, on the other hand, are unemployed because of the disbanding of Saddam's army and de-Baathification initiatives.
The present dynamic bodes poorly for Iraq's future. From Lebanon to Rwanda to Sri Lanka, attempts to dominate the military and police in multiethnic societies have resulted in bloody interethnic struggles for power. If Iraqi security forces continue to be a sectarian tool, it is unlikely that stability and peace can be restored to the country. Sunnis will fight on because their ethnic foes control the institutions of state power, and their violence will fan Kurdish and Shiite fears of a Sunni attempt to reinstate Baathist tyranny.
Both US and Iraqi efforts are necessary to avoid this grim future. The United States needs to use its influence as the trainer and adviser of Iraqi forces to alter their ethnic composition and deployment. Leading Iraqi politicians need to recognize that shortsighted attempts to advance sectarian interests through the security forces can only end in disaster. Three key policies are necessary to reduce sectarian tensions over this issue. Though each is difficult, even a small degree of success could make a decisive difference.
First, Sunni veterans need to continue being brought back into the security forces. Amnesties, bribes, and coercion are all useful to accomplish this task. Such a policy brings risks, for some of these officers will be thugs, incompetents, or insurgent sympathizers. But acceding to the wishes of prominent Shiite parties by not pursuing this policy will have even worse results - an enduring conflict driven by Sunnis with military backgrounds who see no other route to power and status.
Second, the US and its Iraqi allies need to shape the deployment of security forces so that provinces with a clear ethnic majority are disproportionately manned by soldiers and police of that ethnicity. This is already the status quo in the country's northern and southern regions, and the Sunni provinces should be garrisoned according to the same logic - the continued presence of predominantly Shiite and Kurdish security forces in places like Ramadi and Fallujah cannot create enduring stability.
However, these Sunni areas should be manned by some capable Kurdish and Shiite forces to forestall the rise of independent Sunni military power and block attempted coups d'etat. Likewise, Kurdish and Shiite regions need to include soldiers and police from the other ethnic groups. Ethnic dominance at the local and provincial levels must be accommodated as a fact of life without encouraging further separatist tendencies.
Finally, at the national level, Shiite political parties should not push for control of both the Defense and Interior ministries. Such a concentration of power in their hands will generate destabilizing fear and resentment among both Sunnis and Kurds, who are unlikely to view Shiite dominance as benign. While Shiites' desires to protect themselves are reasonable, they must understand that such efforts can also directly threaten the security of others. Giving at least nominal control of Interior or Defense to another ethnic group will dramatically reduce these fears, lowering the risk of a widened civil war.
Achieving long-term stability in Iraq is possible if each ethnic group is confident that it can defend itself, but not confident that it can conquer or subdue the others. This will only occur if the current opportunity to shape the composition, deployment, and control of Iraqi security forces is seized. If it is not, fear, resentment, and violent quests for ethnic dominance will be the enduring features of Iraq's political landscape for years to come.
• Roger Petersen is an associate professor and Paul Staniland is a PhD student in the Department of Political Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.