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The Obama administration has maintained some of the optimistic Bush-era rhetoric for its vision of the future, while acknowledging that much depends on solving Iraq’s immediate problems.

When Mr. Maliki teamed up with Muqtada al-Sadr’s hard-line Shiite supporters, it guaranteed him the prime minister’s office. The U.S. secured a role for Ayad Allawi’s Sunni-led bloc after it won the most parliamentary seats, but key decisions on the legislation for the power-sharing arrangement were pushed off.

Iraq’s Defense and Interior ministries were similarly left for later. Now is later.

One legacy of the occupation that costs money to maintain but could be a key diplomatic tool is the distribution of U.S. diplomats throughout the country.

Instead of having all U.S. personnel pooled in the capital, and all its engagement efforts directed solely toward the prime minister and other central government leaders, Washington can simultaneously press the Kurds in the North and Sunnis and Shia at the regional level.

While Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. mobilizes his years of personal relationship with Iraq’s political elite at the very top, officials staff consulates in Basra, Irbil and, since Christmas, Kirkuk.

The administration wants to begin lowering costs in Iraq further. The plan envisions local staff replacing Americans in security and logistics, and more food and fuel purchased on local markets. The shift would depend on a more peaceful environment prevailing and the country embarking on a surer democratic path.

But the challenge remains: Can the U.S., with its limited capacity to shape events in Iraq, help forge a culture of nation in a place that may remain too deeply divided among themselves?

Mr. Maliki’s arrest warrant against Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, a longtime critic, for allegedly organizing assassinations leaves the country divided at the upper echelons of government. If the schism reaches down to street level, Iraq risks sliding back toward the civil war-like violence of 2006 and 2007.