While the formation of a new Iraqi government is one necessary condition to avert a civil war there, another is for the US and Iraqi governments to get control of the Shiite militias that American forces have been reluctant to fight.
American commanders have said that if a Sunni-Shiite civil war erupts in Iraq, they will look to Iraqi security forces to deal with it. Unfortunately, Iraqi security forces have become increasingly Shiite and, in the case of the police, infiltrated by Shiite militias.
As a result, the US position is tantamount to letting the Iraqis slug it out. That raises a question about the point of keeping a large US force in Iraq. But the alternative of putting American troops in the middle of a civil war would be even worse.
This predicament stems from two mistakes made after the Iraqis assumed sovereignty from the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) in 2004. First, the American and Iraqi governments failed to implement the ban on militias negotiated by the CPA and enacted as Iraqi law - even though all militias except the Mahdi Army of the renegade Shiite Muqtada al Sadr agreed to the ban. Second, the Ministry of Interior, which controls Iraq's police, was allowed to fall into the hands of another Shiite militia, the Badr Corps.
Even as it combats the Sunni insurgency, the US should use whatever clout it has left in Iraq to get control of the Shiite militias. Though a long shot, the only path may be to revive and finally implement the 2004 ban on militias. The terms of that deal are:
1. Provide job training and placement for militia fighters willing to lay down their arms. Many militiamen probably would welcome such an opportunity at a time when jobs are scarce. The US and Iraqi governments should mount a large-scale program to give individuals an alternative to becoming fighters in a civil war and instead train them to do the construction work needed to rebuild Iraq's dilapidated housing and ruined infrastructure. The cost would be trivial compared with the enormous bill of a sectarian war. Europeans and others could be asked to help fund this worthy cause.
2. Permit militia fighters to join Iraq's security forces as individuals, but not in groups with their command chains still intact. This was the original intention. It means that the Ministry of Interior, as well as the Ministry of Defense, must be taken out of the hands of parties and politicians who want their militias to dominate Iraq's security forces. The US and new Iraqi governments now appear determined to place these "power ministries" under capable nonpartisan ministers.
3. Enforce the disbanding of what is left of the militias after individuals enter job training or Iraqi security services. The 2004 law states that any political party retaining a militia - such as the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq that controls the Badr Corps - should be excluded from politics, instead of being rewarded with high office. Beyond that, US and Iraqi forces must be prepared forcibly to disarm any militias that remain active. Because the Iraqi police have already been largely compromised, this means that the Iraqi Army and the US military must act jointly. The alternative is to let Shiite militias flout the law and escalate sectarian violence - just what Sunni extremists such as Al Qaeda leader in Iraq Abu Musab al-Zarqawi want.
The more successful the first two measures, the easier it will be to rid Iraq of remaining militias. Conversely, the first two measures will not work without a credible threat to disband the militias.
The Kurds also have militias and must also obey the law. But Iraqi law allows most of these fighters to become official forces of the Kurdish Regional Government.
Neither the new Iraqi government nor the US can dissolve the militias by itself. This must be done in partnership and as the first order of business. The danger is that the new Iraqi government could be dominated by the very Shiite parties that control militias. However, early signs are that Prime Minister Jawad al-Maliki will not let this happen.
Now that Iraqis have created a new government, they and the US may be able to avert civil war if, perhaps only if, they implement and enforce the militia law. If they do not, keeping US troops in Iraq will get harder and harder to defend.
• David C. Gompert is a senior fellow at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research organization. He served as senior adviser for national security and defense for the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq in 2003 and 2004, during which time he negotiated the agreement to dissolve the militias.