If Sunday's horrific bomb blasts in the heart of Baghdad were meant to foment political instability ahead of national elections in January, Iraq has a recourse: Its political leaders can proceed apace toward elections – an important milestone for the country and the region.
The parliamentary elections, if fair and peaceful, will mark the first real transition from one Iraqi administration to the next. They will take the country that much further down the road toward democratic maturity in a region parched of it. They will test whether Iraq's security forces can be loyal to the state, and they will help ensure that US troops withdraw, as agreed, by the end of 2011.
Any number of internal or regional actors would like to upset this scenario, which is why it's so important that Iraq's politicians clear any obstacle to the elections.
So far, the parliament has been unable to agree on rules for the balloting, which, according to the Iraqi Constitution, must take place before Jan. 30. The parliament missed an Oct. 15 deadline for a new election law. American and United Nations officials warn that if lawmakers don't pass new rules by this weekend, logistics will force the election's postponement.
Two main issues stand in the way of an election law. One is whether voting lists should be "open" and include the names of candidates and not just parties. They should, because an individual is more accountable to a voter than a faceless blob of a party.
Iraq's Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani has spoken in favor of the open-list system. Lawmakers who have been able to hide and thrive behind the blob are naturally not keen on this idea.
The other issue is far less clear-cut. It has to do with who votes in the ethnically divided city of Kirkuk. Arabs and Turkmens complain that in recent years, Kurds have flooded into the city, which the Kurds claim as traditionally theirs (before Saddam Hussein imported Arabs and drove Kurds out).
Arabs and Turkmens worry that including these new residents will tip the scales in the Kurds' favor for a much larger and tougher issue: determining the future of Kirkuk. Kurds want this oil-rich area incorporated into their autonomous region; the Arabs and Turkmens resist.
The 2010 election law can't be held hostage to a difficult dispute that could take years to resolve. Whatever is decided – sidestepping the issue entirely or finding a compromise – the solution has to be an Iraqi one, and not one that predetermines the answer to the larger question of Kirkuk's future.
The Obama administration must exert all the diplomatic persuasion it can to push Iraq's leaders toward an open-list election and to keep to the political timetable. Delay may not only throw off the time line for US troop withdrawal, it could also sour voters on the political process.
Iraqis themselves should see a timely and more democratic election as a forward step along a continuum that has so far brought them a new constitution, an elected full-time government, sovereignty as US troops moved to a background role – and, despite last weekend's most deadly bombing since 2007 – a comparatively low level of violence.
Particularly noteworthy is the Iraqi people's rejection of sectarian violence and sectarian strife generally. They turned against Al Qaeda, held back retaliatory impulses, and in January’s provincial elections did not look favorably on parties organized on religious or sectarian lines. [Editor’s note: An earlier version incorrectly stated the time of Iraq’s provincial elections.]
Insurgents have perhaps realized that bombings intended to reignite sectarian or ethnic divisions – attacking worshipers at mosques, for instance – won't bring the desired reaction. By targeting the government sector in spectacular attacks back in August and now, they look to be aiming directly at disrupting the political process. They won't succeed – unless Iraq's political leaders allow them to.