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Every so often, something happens that causes the Iraqi government and the Bush Administration to announce that a turning point has arrived for the beleaguered country. In the month that I was away from Baghdad, there were two such events: the killing of terrorist Abu Mousab al-Zarqawi and the appointment, after weeks of political haggling, of new ministers of Defense and the Interior. The ministers, a Sunni and Shi'ite, respectively, had been touted as independent and nonsectarian--new brooms to brush away the rampant corruption in the two crucial security ministries. Interior, in particular, would be cleansed of the Shi'ite militias that had infiltrated all levels of the police and other security forces and turned them into instruments of Shi'ite vengeance against their former Sunni oppressors.
The ministers were the last bricks on the façade that is the all-party national-unity government of Prime Minister al-Maliki. Earlier in the year I had watched from close quarters as U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad worked tirelessly to make that government possible, pleading, cajoling until all the political factions--Shi'ite, Sunni, Kurdish and secular--agreed to get in the big tent together. Relieved, the Bush Administration announced that the participation of all groups, especially the recalcitrant Sunnis, would allow al-Maliki's government to succeed where the U.S. military had failed, in bringing to heel both the Sunni insurgency and the rising might of the Shi'ite militias. Never mind that the Prime Minister was himself a Shi'ite partisan until his nomination--whereupon he sought to reinvent himself as a nonsectarian leader--and that his party had stronger ties to Tehran than to Washington. An ornery figure, al-Maliki is a backroom politician plainly ill at ease in public; few Iraqis had even heard of him, and few are convinced that his rancorous all-party government can last the year, much less its full four-year term.
Already, U.S. officials are finding it hard to keep up the optimistic spin. Shi'ite and Sunni politicians may now sit together, but their mutual hostility is undiminished, undermining the government--and al-Maliki can only look on helplessly. A political lightweight and compromise candidate, the Prime Minister doesn't have the clout to bash heads, much less deliver on his promises to pursue insurgents with "no mercy" and crush the militias "with an iron fist." As the politicians continue to bicker, the big tent is looking shaky; there were calls last week for several ministers--including the Interior chief--to be replaced.