President Bush's surprise trip to Baghdad this week underlined an unsettling truth about U.S. efforts in Iraq.
The war effort and Mr. Bush's political future now depend on Iraq's politicians. That's why he had to travel to Baghdad to shore up its shaky leaders. The U.S. project in Iraq will turn on whether the new Iraqi government can improve its people's lives.
The administration long ago concluded that Iraq could not be stabilized by military force. Any chance of halting the sectarian violence depends on whether Sunni and Shiite politicians can settle their differences by political negotiation rather than bullets and present a united front to the country. Otherwise, Iraq's national security forces will split along sectarian lines with little chance of standing up sufficiently in order for U.S. forces to stand down.
When Mr. Bush grasped the hand of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, he was holding America's best hope of drawing down troops in the near term. After two weeks in Iraq, I would estimate that betting on Mr. al-Maliki is a long shot. But it is not a hopeless proposition.
The Iraqi leader has made several strong proposals in recent weeks about restoring security and services. But he has limited powers. He has been hamstrung by infighting among his fellow Shiites and between Sunni and Shiite parties who were unable for months to agree on the key ministers of defense and interior.
Mr. al-Maliki was given a boost by the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. But until now, many Iraqi ministers have been focused more on personal enrichment than on performance. The art of compromise is foreign in a country where, historically, winners take all and losers wind up jailed or dead.
A few competent government figures, however, grasp the importance of the moment. "Now that we have appointed the security ministers," Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari told me last week, "this government has no more excuses."
So here are benchmarks suggested by Mr. Zebari and other ministers by which you can judge Mr. al-Maliki's progress in the days and months ahead.
First, the prime minister will attempt to restore security to Baghdad, which has fallen under the control of terrorists, militias and criminal gangs in the last few months.
A special force of army and police will be created for Baghdad, with a single commander, and with a single uniform that is hard to copy. This force will control all entrances to Baghdad, and tens of thousands of men will secure the city district by district.
The idea would be to eliminate the current mess where there are many police units that patrol Baghdad but achieve little. Baghdadis don't know which units can be trusted or which forces may be sectarian death squads dressed as police officers. No progress can be made in Iraq until the capital is controlled.
Second, Mr. al-Maliki will try to turn the lights on in Baghdad, which has had from two to eight hours of electricity a day in 115-degree heat. Iraqis can't run their fans, refrigerators, elevators or air conditioners, and these daunting conditions aggravate unemployment.
Mr. al-Maliki has appointed a highly respected technocrat, Karim Wahid Hassan, to run an electricity ministry that until now has been plagued by corruption, sabotage and lack of coordination between U.S. contractors and Iraqi experts. In Baghdad, more watts could mean revived morale.
Third, Mr. al-Maliki will try to promote national reconciliation - both at home and through a conference scheduled for Baghdad this summer and sponsored by the Arab League. Iraqi Sunnis tout the importance of such a conference; Shiites are dismissive. For Iraqi violence to decline, Iraq's Arab and Iranian neighbors would have to stop their meddling.
U.S. help will be essential in pursuing Mr. al-Maliki's goals. But the greatest burden will fall on Iraqis, who must cope with a collapsed state and the consequences of U.S. mismanagement of the occupation. They must also learn to overcome sectarian urges and think of one Iraqi nation.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Her column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. Her e-mail is email@example.com.