What a mission impossible: For the first time since the 2003 American invasion, Iraq has a government that includes all of its major political parties.
It took nine months of wrangling since the March 7 parliamentary elections for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to claim a second term and finally present his coalition cabinet on Tuesday. Now even a minority Sunni politician once aligned with Saddam Hussein is a deputy prime minister.
Problems such as electricity blackouts and terrorist bombings remain, of course, but with reconciliation of Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds making strides, some 50,000 American troops are set to exit in a year’s time.
The United States is also making its largest transition from military to civilian assistance for a single country since the Marshall Plan in postwar Europe. US consulates are opening in cities outside Baghdad. And Iraq has become a hot attraction for foreign investors as it tries to beat out Saudi Arabia in oil exports.
The time is now ripe for Washington to prepare for an Iraq – a nation that once had little democratic tradition and invaded two of its neighbors – that can be a key partner in reshaping the Middle East, much like the role Germany plays in Europe or Japan in Asia.
Americans should expect no less, after more than 1.5 million US soldiers served in Iraq with a loss of more than 4,440 American lives and tens of thousands of Iraqis. The two nations are now inextricably bound by a contentious history born of post-9/11 fears but also hopes for a Middle East that can be rid of jihadism through contagious democracy.
As President Obama said in August, “We’ve persevered because of a belief we share with the Iraqi people – a belief that out of the ashes of war, a new beginning could be born in this cradle of civilization.”
The fragile but definitive successes in Iraq are already serving as a model for other conflicts, such as Afghanistan. Ending the civil war that erupted in 2006, for instance, required a careful mix of a troop surge, diplomatic finesse of sectarian factions, and the use of reconstruction teams in the provinces.
The US is also beefing up its people exchanges, such as placing young Iraqi engineers in US high-tech firms in hopes they will launch start-up businesses back home. And the US Department of Justice is helping Iraq cement a commitment to the rule of law.
Iraq’s security forces now measure more than half a million, and operate largely out of nationalist rather than sectarian motives. In a sign of revived Iraqi patriotism and communal tolerance, tensions between Shiite politicians are as strong as between Shiites and Sunnis.
And in a sign that democratic politics are alive and well in Iraq, Prime Minister Maliki, a Shiite, said while announcing his cabinet: “I have not satisfied anybody at all. Everybody is angry with me, and everybody is frustrated with me.”
Amazingly, the months of political infighting didn’t spawn a surge of violence. Now a Sunni is the speaker of parliament, and Sunnis control 10 high-level ministries; after the 2005 election, they won few high posts. The anti-American, pro-Iran Shiite faction led by Muslim cleric Moqtada al-Sadr won only minor posts.
The postelection contest for power in Iraq also revealed the competition for influence in the region between the US and Iran. Despite their rivalry, however, both Iran and the US have a strong interest in a peaceful, prosperous Iraq.
For the US, though, a thriving democracy in Iraq may serve as an inspiration for suppressed democrats in Iran, as well as in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Persian Gulf. Iraq may also request some sort of continuing US military role, such as control of Iraqi airspace. And Baghdad will likely form alliances with other peaceful nations in the region, further isolating a belligerent Iran.
The strategic advantages of US-Iraqi friendship are many. Assuming Congress keeps funding US efforts there, “the Iraqi people will have a strong partner in the United States,” as Mr. Obama said. Americans suffered a terrible war in Iraq, the president said, but they also “helped the Iraqi people seek the light of peace.”
By reconciling factions that seemed irreconcilable just three years ago, Iraq has begun to step into that light.