Iraq in the balance

BAGHDAD, IRAQ

"For 35 years the sun did not shine here," said a man on the grounds of the great Shia shrine of al-Kadhimiyyah, on the outskirts of Baghdad. I had come to the shrine at night, in the company of the Shia politician Ahmed Chalabi.

We had driven in an armed convoy, and our presence had drawn a crowd. The place was bathed with light, framed by multiple minarets--a huge rectangular structure, its beauty and dereliction side by side. The tile work was exquisite, there were deep Persian carpets everywhere, the gifts of benefactors, rulers and merchants, drawn from the world of Shi'ism.

It was a cool spring night, and beguilingly tranquil. (There were the echoes of a firefight across the river, from the Sunni neighborhood of al-Adhamiyyah, but it was background noise and oddly easy to ignore.) A keeper of the shrine had been showing us the place, and he was proud of its doors made of teak from Burma--a kind of wood, he said, that resisted rain, wind and sun. It was to that description that the quiet man on the edge of this gathering had offered the thought that the sun had not risen during the long night of Baathist despotism.

A traveler who moves between Baghdad and Washington is struck by the gloomy despair in Washington and the cautious sense of optimism in Baghdad. Baghdad has not been prettified; its streets remain a sore to the eye, its government still hunkered down in the Green Zone, and violence is never far. But the sense of deliverance, and the hopes invested in this new security plan, are palpable. I crisscrossed the city--always with armed protection--making my way to Sunni and Shia politicians and clerics alike. The Sunni and Shia versions of political things--of reality itself--remain at odds. But there can be discerned, through the acrimony, the emergence of a fragile consensus.

Some months back, the Bush administration had called into question both the intentions and capabilities of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. But this modest and earnest man, born in 1950, a child of the Shia mainstream in the Middle Euphrates, has come into his own. He had not been a figure of the American regency in Baghdad. Steeped entirely in the Arabic language and culture, he had a been a stranger to the Americans; fate cast him on the scene when the Americans pushed aside Mr. Maliki's colleague in the Daawa Party, Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari.

There had been rumors that the Americans could strike again in their search for a leader who would give the American presence better cover. There had been steady talk that the old CIA standby, former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, could make his way back to power. Mr. Allawi himself had fed these speculations, but this is fantasy. Mr. Allawi circles Arab capitals and is rarely at home in his country. Mr. Maliki meanwhile has settled into his role.

In retrospect, the defining moment for Mr. Maliki had been those early hours of Dec. 30, when Saddam Hussein was sent to the gallows. He had not flinched, the decision was his, and he assumed it. Beyond the sound and fury of the controversy that greeted the execution, Mr. Maliki had taken the execution as a warrant for a new accommodation with the Sunni political class. A lifelong opponent of the Baath, he had come to the judgment that the back of the apparatus of the old regime had been broken, and that the time had come for an olive branch to those ready to accept the new political rules.

When I called on Mr. Maliki at his residence, a law offering pensions to the former officers of the Iraqi army had been readied and was soon put into effect. That decision had been supported by the head of the de-Baathification commission, Ahmed Chalabi. A proposal for a deeper reversal of the de-Baathification process was in the works, and would be announced days later by Mr. Maliki and President Jalal Talabani. This was in truth Zalmay Khalilzad's doing, his attempt to bury the entire de-Baathification effort as his tenure drew to a close.

This was more than the political traffic in the Shia community could bear. Few were ready to accept the return of old Baathists to government service. The victims of the old terror were appalled at a piece of this legislation, giving them a period of only three months to bring charges against their former tormentors. This had not been Mr. Maliki's choice -- for his animus toward the Baath has been the driving force of his political life. It was known that he trusted that the religious hierarchy in Najaf, and the forces within the Shia alliance, would rein in this drive toward rehabilitating the remnants of the old regime.

Power and experience have clearly changed Mr. Maliki as he makes his way between the Shia coalition that sustains him on the one hand, and the American presence on the other. By all accounts, he is increasingly independent of the diehards in his own coalition--another dividend of the high-profile executions of Saddam Hussein and three of the tyrant's principal lieutenants. He is surrounded by old associates drawn from the Daawa Party, but keeps his own counsel.

There is a built-in tension between a prime minister keen to press for his own prerogatives and an American military presence that underpins the security of this new order. Mr. Maliki does not have the access to American military arms he would like; he does not have control over an Iraqi special-forces brigade that the Americans had trained and nurtured. His police forces remain poorly equipped. The levers of power are not fully his, and he knows it. Not a student of American ways--he spent his years of exile mostly in Syria--he is fully aware of the American exhaustion with Iraq as leading American politicians have come his way often.

By Fouad Ajami