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Baghdad's starting to look a lot like Washington.


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April 5, 2005 -- MORE than two months after Iraq's inspiring elections, the country's political factions still have not been able to agree on a president, prime minister or Cabinet. Is democracy failing in Baghdad?

No. At least not yet. There are very good reasons why the back-room bartering has taken so long. Anyway, Americans needed almost a decade and a half to get from our Declaration of Independence to the swearing in of our first president, with plenty of acrimony along the way.

Compared to us, the Iraqis look efficient.

We need to be patient. There's real progress — the parliament just elected a speaker, a Sunni Arab, Hajim al-Hassani. There's hope that the rest of the government will fall into place this week or next.

Even if the new Cabinet isn't sworn in for another month, it's better for the Iraqis — all Iraqis — if they settle as many of the big issues now as they can.

The ethnic and religious rivalries go deep. Plenty of hands have blood on them. If any commodity is in short supply in Iraq, it's trust. If Iraqis can't agree to respect each other's rights and needs at this point, it won't happen later.

With the second-largest party in parliament, the Kurds have been tough bargainers. They need to be. Having suffered genocide, ethnic cleansing, dispossession, torture and rape at the hands of Arab Iraqis, the Kurds need to draw clear lines past which would-be tyrants will not be able to step.

The Kurds would prefer independence — and they deserve it — but they're determined not to be the spoilers in Iraq. As one of the greatest Kurdish statesmen, Barham Salih, told me last year, "If Iraq fails, it won't be the fault of the Kurds."

But the Kurds need to protect the freedom they've already gained. They're progressive, tolerant and comparatively secular. They can't accept a "dictatorship of the majority" in which Shi'a clerics attempt to impose Sharia law on Iraq.

Of course, many Shia and Sunni Arabs don't want to live under Islamic law, either. The Kurds are defending the rights of all Iraqis to enjoy their new-found freedom.

The Kurds also need to establish the status of Kirkuk, a traditionally Kurdish city that Saddam tried to Arabize. Postponing a decision will lead to violence and division. With its oil reserves and strategic position, the city is essential to Kurdish security. All parties must be treated justly, but the Kurds cannot be denied the ancestral homes Saddam's regime stole.

The Kurds need guarantees, in multiple forms, that their rights will be respected. Otherwise, they have no future in Iraq.

The Sunni Arabs, too, worry over their rights under the new system. Many of their politicians and opinion leaders who boycotted the January election now rue the decision. They're trying to find a path into the government, to ensure that their concerns are heard as the constitution is written. Encouragingly, the other factions want to include them.

It's democracy in progress: frustrating, slow and imperfect. If you want fast decisions, call a tyrant.

On the Shia side, the monolithic voting block is cracking. Simply being Shia together isn't enough. Interests are diverging — another healthy development.

The real intransigents aren't Kurds or Sunni Arabs, but the most conservative Shia mullahs. They believe Islamic law should shape the constitution, a move that would be disastrous.

The hardline mullahs hate the requirement for a two-thirds majority to alter basic laws that the Coalition left behind. That critical rule prevents the Shia majority from dominating the country's minorities. Imposing it was the wisest thing we did since deposing Saddam. But the Shia — with no experience of democracy — don't understand why, having won a majority, they can't impose their will on the entire country.

If the Shia clerics don't learn the limits of their power now, it will be far harder to restrain them later.

Forming the Cabinet isn't just about finding the best man or woman for each job. As in every democracy, political considerations come into play. But in the fledgling Iraqi system, the stakes are immense. The apportionment of Cabinet posts must be finely calibrated. Justice, security, minority rights, oil revenues and the future constitution are at stake.

The new government has to simultaneously fight terrorists, heal a badly wounded country and write a constitution that will secure a better future for all of Iraq's people.

The Iraqi pols may not get all of it right. They may even fail. But impatience won't help.

There'll soon be a government in place. With a Shia prime minister, a Kurdish president, a Sunni Arab parliamentary speaker and a multiethnic, multi-confessional Cabinet.

And they'll all be held accountable at the next elections.

The new government won't be perfect. The squabbling won't stop. Divisive issues won't disappear. We'll see political betrayals, tantrums and no end of grandstanding by demagogues. There'll be no shortage of errors to criticize — or of self-important critics.

Baghdad's starting to look a lot like Washington.

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