- The Washington Times - Monday, April 24, 2006

President Bush had it right when he noted that Iraqis reached a milestone on Saturday with the selection of Jawad al-Maliki, a Shi’ite, as the new prime minister of Iraq. The ruling Shi’ite alliance, the largest bloc in the Iraqi parliament in the wake of September’s elections, nominated Mr. al-Maliki to replace interim Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, who withdrew his name from consideration. The selection of Mr. al-Maliki (who must present his new Cabinet to parliament 28 days from now) came after two months of difficult negotiations. He now assumes responsibility for forming Iraq’s first full-term government since the ouster of Saddam Hussein three years ago. This is good news, but thus far it has gotten relatively little attention from newspapers of record like The Washington Post and the New York Times.

It will be extraordinarily difficult for his political enemies — the country’s terrorist insurgency being the most prominent — to depict Mr. al-Maliki as an American puppet. He spent more than two decades in exile, mostly in Syria and Iran. A member of the Dawa Party, he is reported to have opposed the U.S.-led war to topple Saddam. (The newly elected speaker of parliament, Sunni activist Mahmoud al-Mashhadani, also opposed the war.)

A major reason why Mr. Jaafari lost credibility with many Iraqis was his inability to stop the abuses committed by Iraqi security forces, which have come to be dominated by the Shi’ite militamen who have perpetrated crimes against Sunnis. At the same time, Iraqi Shi’ites live in fear of violent Sunni militias. In his first policy speech, Mr. al-Maliki, responding to this concern, called for militias to be merged with the Iraqi armed forces.

One of the most positive things about the political process in Iraq is how far the country has come in such a short period of time. From July 1968 until March 2003, Iraq was a totalitarian state, and Saddam prohibited any manifestations of independent thinking or political pluralism. By contrast, in post-Saddam Iraq, a serious effort is being made to replace dictatorship with a democratically elected government in which politicians compete at the ballot box and try to negotiate differences peacefully.

By all accounts, that is what happened over the past few months in Iraq. Even as a brutal war raged in the streets of Baghdad, Iraqi politicians were actively engaged in the give and take and the long, difficult negotiating sessions that characterize free societies all over the world. The selection of Mr. Mashhadani, for example, was troubling to Shi’ites, who regarded him as too doctrinaire and polarizing. For their part, the Sunnis felt much the same way about Mr. al-Maliki. In the end, they reached a compromise: The Shi’ites would support Mr. Mashhadani in exchange for Sunni agreement to back Mr. al-Maliki.

For those of us who have been blessed with the good fortune to live in countries like the United States, with a long tradition of political freedom and pluralism, the easiest thing — and the most intellectually lazy thing — to do is to look down our noses at the Iraqis who are trying to build a brighter future for their country. These politicians are risking their lives in an effort to form a viable, democratic government, and they deserve the support of all Americans — whatever our political persuasion. If they fail and Iraq collapses, these courageous Iraqis have the most to lose. But make no mistake about it: Were Iraq to fall to the various opposition forces or the United States to be driven out of that country before the job is finished, it could be a catastrophic defeat for this country, one which could only embolden the bin Ladens and Zarqawis of the world.

What is most striking, however, is the muted reaction to the good news from major newspapers who have made Iraqi violence and political gridlock front-page news for the past few months. On Sunday, The Post buried it on Page A12. Yesterday, The Post relegated the story in a paragraph of a story on Page A12. It did find space above the fold on the front page to run a lengthy update of a story about torture in Iraqi jails. On Sunday, the New York Times put the story on Page A4. Yesterday, the Times ran a front-page story that mixed a few hopeful comments about Mr. al-Maliki with a lot of grim stories about violence and torture. Sometimes it appears that with Iraq, it doesn’t make the front page unless it is bad news.

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