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Iraq Continues to Boil

The news in Iraq continues to darken. There has been some progress, yes, but also a spate of horrific violence that suggests the Maliki government may have lost its grip, at least temporarily, on shepherding forward a fragile political peace and process of national reconciliation. This dispatch from Saturday's Times of London painted an extremely discouraging picture, as does news this morning of large, military style executions in Mahmudiyah yesterday.

Last week at the Center For Strategic and International Studies, U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalizad spoke at length about the numerous challenges we continue to face in Iraq, including the "significant" sectarian violence in Baghdad, the need for more Iraqi police, the influence of Iran, the need to reform the Interior Ministry, and more. Khalizad started his speech with an important and measured assessment of where we are:

I'll give my bottom line up-front: I believe Americans, while remaining tactically patient about Iraq, should be strategically optimistic. Most important, a major change, a tectonic shift has taken place in the political orientation of the Sunni Arab community. A year ago, Sunni Arabs were outside of the political process and hostile to the United States. They boycotted the January 2005 elections, and were underrepresented in the Transitional National Assembly. Today, Sunni Arabs are full participants in the political process with their representation in the National Assembly now proportional to their share of the population. Also, they have largely come to see the United States as an honest broker in helping Iraq's communities come together around a process and a plan to stabilize the country.

Moreover, al Qaeda in Iraq have been significantly weakened during the past year. This resulted not only from the recent killing of Zarqawi, but also from the capture or killing of a number of other senior leaders, and the creation of an environment in which it is more difficult and dangerous for al Qaeda in Iraq.

These are fundamental and positive changes. Together they have made possible the inauguration of Iraq's first-ever government of national unity with non-sectarian security ministers, agreements on the rules for decision-making on critical issues, and on the structure of institutions of the executive branch and a broadly agreed-upon program. They have also enabled political progress that resulted in the recent announcement of Prime Minister Maliki of his government's national reconciliation and dialogue project.

However, at the same time, the terrorists have adapted to this success by exploiting Iraq's sectarian fault line. A year ago, terrorism and the insurgency against the coalition and the Iraqi security forces were the principal source of instability. Particularly since the bombing of the Golden Mosque in February, violent sectarianism is now the main challenge. This sectarianism is the source of frequent tragedies on the streets of Baghdad.It's imperative for the new Iraqi government to make major progress in dealing with this challenge in the next six months. The prime minister understands this fact.

I'd also point out this story in today's Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Rick Larson is a Democrat from Washington's 2nd District who voted against the war Iraq but who disagrees with his House colleagues about setting an arbitrary withdrawal date.

Larsen recently returned from his third trip to Iraq where he got a first-hand look at operations there, despite being confined to the Green Zone with sectarian violence rising in the city. The PI reports that, "Despite his limited view, Larsen is convinced progress is being made, though it is slow and remaking Iraq is a complex problem."

Larsen also provides one of the most apt descriptions of the difficulty of our current situation:

"Pieces are in place to move forward but there is a ton of work left to do and not all of it is ours," he said, referring to the need for the Iraqi government to unify its factions, to build a credible army and effective police force.

"Our problem is, we're just trying to be a lid on the boiling pot and trying to get people to turn the knob down to low in order to create some room for this reconciliation process to move forward."

Larsen said Iraq will succeed only when its fractured political system can solidify. That, he said, requires a cultural shift that takes time.

Iraq is certainly boiling at the moment. So long as the institutions comprising the new government hold together and the Sunni, Shi'a and Kurds continue to stay involved in the political process, the pot won't boil over into all out civil war. But without improved security in Baghdad, there's no telling how long the fragile coalition government can hold up against the constant pressure.