Singing the same tune on Iraq

Iraqis united around an 'Idol' winner. Will Bush and the Democrats seek a similar unity on the Iraq war?

Here's a half-serious suggestion for the coming talks on Iraq between President Bush and Democratic lawmakers: Invite Shadha Hassoun. She's the young singer from Iraq who just won the Arab version of "American Idol." For a brief moment, she brought Iraqis together in unity.

It would be grand if Washington's leaders could come together on such disputes as war funding or an exit strategy during their meeting at the White House on April 18. That's not really expected inside the Beltway's political hothouse. But Shadha, as her Iraqi fans call her, serves as a living example of achieving the most difficult and yet precious goal for both Americans and Iraqis in ending this war.

During three months of broadcasts of the song-and-dance contest called "Star Academy" – perhaps the most popular TV entertainment in the Middle East – Shadha refused to identify herself as either Sunni or Shiite. In her moment of victory, she waved the Iraqi flag and was hailed by millions of Iraqis as a "daughter of Mesopotamia."

That spirit of reconciliation between Iraq's two main Muslim groups is barely moving forward in Baghdad, despite a "surge" of US troops aimed at creating enough peace in the capital to allow the government to function for all sides.

As the "Shadha" moment revealed, Iraqis do want unity. A Shiite- dominated government, elected in 2005 on a wave of religious fervor among Shiites, is losing support from that majority group. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is unable to deliver peace and basic services. He appears too tied to Shiite clerics. That's left an opening for secular nationalists to try to unite as a political force – a long shot but a telling one.

Last month, Mr. Maliki, with a nudge from the US ambassador, did announce a proposal to allow thousands of Sunnis who are former members of Saddam Hussein's ruling Baath Party to regain their government jobs.

That goal of reaching out to the minority Sunnis – many of whom support or participate in the insurgency – has long been a main benchmark for progress set by Bush. And many Democrats in Congress say they back a withdrawal date for US troops solely to pressure Shiite leaders to achieve such goals.

But Maliki's proposal was never sent to the Iraqi legislature. It was opposed by top cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who once promised not to meddle in politics. So instead, the prime minister last week ordered pensions to be paid to senior officers of Hussein's military and jobs for former lower-ranking soldiers.

Far more needs to be done. Maliki still must ensure a fair distribution of oil wealth to Sunni regions and rid the Iraqi Army and police of Shiite death squads, as well as allow ex-Baathists into public service.

Such measures should be among the talking points at the White House next week. Bush and Congress can work together to lean harder on Shiite leaders. Threatening to pull out US troops next year seems to be one tool. But it's a blunt one, reflecting more a war weariness among Americans than an effective strategy to turn Iraq around and provide a graceful exit for the US.

Shadha is unlikely to be a guest at the White House next week. But someone like her might be able to show Democrats and Bush that they, too, can sing together on Iraq. •

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