The Washington Post’s David Ignatius has written another positive article about Iraq’s improving climate, this time talking about the significance of Jawad al-Maliki’s becoming their prime minister.

So what should the world make of Iraq’s new prime minister, Jawad al-Maliki? What chance will his new government have of containing the sectarian violence in Iraq and averting a full-blown civil war? The first reaction of many outsiders is likely to be, “Jawad who?” Maliki is not well known outside his country, and his election after a four-month impasse may seem anticlimactic. Indeed, since he is a member of the same Islamic faction, the Dawa party, as the incumbent, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, people might imagine that little has changed. But that would be a mistake.
The most important fact about Maliki’s election is that it’s a modest declaration of independence from Iran. The Iranians waged a tough behind-the-scenes campaign to keep Jaafari in office. Tehran issued veiled threats to Iraqi political leaders, in written letters and through emissaries, that if they didn’t back Jaafari, they would pay a price. In resisting this pressure, the political leaders were standing up for a unified Iraq. To succeed, Maliki must mobilize that desire for unity to break the power of the militias and insurgent groups.
“His reputation is as someone who is independent of Iran,” explained Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to Baghdad. He explained that although Maliki initially went into exile in Iran, “he felt he was threatened by them” because of his political independence, and later moved to Syria. “He sees himself as an Arab” and an Iraqi nationalist, Khalilzad said.

In David Ignatius’ opinion, this is a positive step forward. Remember, too, that Ignatius just got back from Iraq, where he wrote a number of positive articles outlining the progress being made there.

One of the most positive things he writes is that al-Maliki “sees himself as an Arab and an Iraqi nationalist” who “felt he was threatened by” Iran. This is a huge deal. For those who understand that region, this is a declaration of sorts that says “Iraq won’t be a theocracy.” I’ll guarantee that that development brought smiles to the President’s and Condi Rice’s faces.

The Iranians “pressured everyone for Jaafari to stay,” Khalilzad said. One senior Iraqi official said the gist of Iran’s letters was “stick with him, or else.” The phrasing was more subtle, including warnings that replacement of Jaafari could “create instability” and damage the political prospects of those who opposed Iran’s diktat. The decisive blow came from Iraq’s Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, who let it be known in the final days that Jaafari had to go.

Ali al-Sistani has been a major stabilizing force ever since the fall of Baghdad. Americans should be thankful for his calming influence.

Maliki’s selection is something of a victory for Khalilzad, who has been a match for the Iraqis in his wily political wrangling. The American ambassador viewed Jaafari as too weak and sectarian. When Jaafari was renominated by the Shiite alliance in February, Khalilzad warned, initially in this column, that the United States wouldn’t support a government that did not put unity first. Khalilzad helped organize a rival coalition of Kurdish and Sunni politicians that represented 143 seats in parliament, more than the 130 seats of the Shiite alliance that had nominated Jaafari. Meanwhile, he began holding marathon meetings with all the Iraqi factions to hammer out the political platform for a unity government.

The President should get alot of credit in picking Khalilzad to succeed John Negroponte as U.S. Ambassador to Iraq. Khalilzad has obviously been a brilliant diplomat and power broker in Baghdad. In my opinion, it’d be justifiable to name him the next Nobel Peace Prize winner for his work in the region. I don’t expect that to happen, given the hatred that the committee has for the Bush Administration but I think a strong case could be made for Khalilzad.

Let’s hope that al-Maliki puts together a strong, credible government. It’s especially important for him to pick a strong leader for the Interior Ministry. That minister has to get a handle on the militias ASAP. If you get that controlled, most, if not all, of the sectarian violence will disappear. Once that hurdle’s been cleared, alot of positive things can happen, all of which this President should get credit for. Should but won’t, at least not with the Beltway media.

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Cross-posted at California Conservative

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