Fresh start in Iraq

Nine months after Iraqis went to the polls in national parliamentary elections last spring, the country's squabbling political factions finally reached a deal this week to allow a new government to take office. That's good news for Iraqis who had begun to question the ability of their leaders to bring stability to the country and avert a return to the bloody sectarian violence of four years ago. But now the pressure is on Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to show that his new Shiite-dominated ruling coalition is up to the challenge of dealing with the country's problems in a way that is acceptable to all Iraq's major political and sectarian groups.

The long delay in forming a government was due to the fact that no single party won an outright parliamentary majority in elections on March 7. That meant the two leading vote-getters, Mr. al-Maliki's Shiite-led alliance and former interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi's Sunni-backed Iraqiya movement, had to woo coalition partners from among several smaller political groups in order to win the 163 seats needed to govern. Though Mr. Allawi's faction slightly outpolled its rival in the elections, he was never able to achieve that goal. That allowed Mr. al-Maliki to stitch together a winning coalition of Sunni Arabs, Kurds, Shiite religious parties and followers of the virulently anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

American officials pressed hard for a major role for Mr. Allawi and his party in any eventual Iraqi government, though for months he insisted he would never serve in a coalition led by Mr. al-Malaki. He appears to have stepped back from that position recently and now is expected to head a new council overseeing foreign policy and security related issues. But there are already doubts in both the Sunni and Shiite camps about how much power the newly created body will actually have, and sectarian disputes have hampered Mr. Maliki's selection of cabinet members.

The challenges facing the new government are in any case enormous. Among Mr. al-Maliki's first tasks will be a finding a way to finance the rebuilding of the country's shattered infrastructure after the devastation wrought by seven years of war. Estimates for fully restoring reliable electricity range as high as $50 billion, while hundreds of billions more will be needed for construction of schools, hospitals, roads, bridges, railways, airports and shipping terminals. Iraq has tremendous oil wealth that could underwrite such projects, but the country has yet to pass a law spelling out an equitable distribution of those funds.

That raises the risk that lingering sectarian and ethnic tensions could again explode into violence over access to the country's oil wealth, plunging the country back into chaos, especially if its disgruntled Sunni minority feels left out of meaningful role in deciding Iraq's future. The problem of managing such tensions will only be compounded by the planned withdrawal of U.S. forces next year; the last American troops are scheduled to leave by the end of 2011, after which Iraqi security forces are supposed to be able to stand on their own against insurgent attacks and terrorist threats.

Prime Minister al-Maliki has expressed confidence that the unity government he leads reflects the diversity of ethnic, sectarian and political interests in Iraq, but there are still questions about how meaningful a role the country's Sunni minority will play. If Iraq is to become the peaceful, prosperous example of democracy in the Mideast that the U.S. wishes it to be, it's vital that Mr. al-Maliki make good on his promises to lead a truly representative government that offers the hope of a better life for all its citizens.

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