A pregnant pause in the US over Iraq

Washington is in useful political limbo. After winning Congress, Democrats must prepare to work with a GOP president to decide the next steps in Iraq. The war's executor, Donald Rumsfeld, is out. His expected replacement, ex-CIA chief Robert Gates, brings a fresh view. And any week, the bipartisan Iraq Study Group will deliver proposals for the choices ahead.

Call it a new beginning for an old war. Of course, Iraq itself remains a jumble of warring factions only loosely resisted by a newly elected government. And exit polls during Tuesday's elections in the US reveal public opinion split along three lines on what course to take: An immediate US withdrawal, a steady pullout over time, or a beefing up of troops to secure Iraq while it pulls itself together.

But despite differences in public opinion, Washington may enjoy a brief period of bipartisanship between President Bush and an incoming Democratic Congress.

Both sides have every reason to settle the issue of Iraq jointly before the next election. Neither party would benefit at the polls next time if Iraq remains in turmoil. Each party now has a hand on the tiller of Iraq's listing ship.

Democrats may get carried away by launching too many official investigations into how the war has been conducted so far by the Bush administration. A few backward-looking probes by a House or Senate committee may be useful, such as in correcting problems in misspent funds by private US contractors in Iraq, if done with a bipartisan tone.

But the postelection climate of joint responsibility for Iraq argues for not using the war's past as a partisan weapon. The key message from the 2006 elections: Figure out a different future for Iraq.

Fortunately, the likely next House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, told PBS's NewsHour: "We're not about getting even. We're about helping the American people get ahead."

Democrats will need to develop a measure of consensus quickly around a plan for Iraq. Otherwise, Republicans may be diverted into once again using the Democrats' differences over the war for political gain. Representative Pelosi laid down tracks for such a consensus by talking of a "responsible redeployment" of US troops while also pushing Iraqis into necessary political compromises and enlisting the aid of Iraq's neighbors.

That sounds a lot like what may come out of the Iraq Study Group, led by Republican James Baker, former secretary of State, and Democrat Lee Hamilton, former chairman of the House International Relations Committee. The White House, too, is reportedly moving in that direction.

One possible point of consensus is that Iraq should not be left in the lurch, endangering the region, or become a launching pad for terrorists. Victory against such an outcome still requires a stable, and preferably democratic, government in Baghdad.

The French statesman, Georges Clemenceau, once said: "War is a series of catastrophes that results in a victory." Iraq has had its share of catastrophes since 2003. Learning from the mistakes and then moving in unison is the only way ahead for now.

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