Iraq's new Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki starts with at least one advantage over his two predecessors Ibrahim Jaafari and Iyad Allawi: He didn't want the job.
Actually, Al-Maliki, who used the nom de guerre of Abu-Asra during decades of struggle against Baathist tyranny, was thinking of distancing himself from active politics when he was invited to form the new government.
When the history of new Iraq is written both Allawi and Jaafari would deserve honorable mention for having assumed a seemingly impossible job at a difficult time.
But each ignored one of the golden rules of politics.
The rule that Allawi ignored is simple: Never sacrifice the possible for the ideal!
Throughout his premiership Allawi refused to make deals and take the decisions necessary because, as he liked everyone to know, he wanted "something better". The result was that much that could have been done, albeit at the level of "second-best" by Allawi's standards, was not done. And that, at a time that Iraq needed action, was not good enough.
The rule that Jaafari ignored was simpler: A successful politician is one who knows when to step aside!
In that sense a politician is no different from an actor who must know when to take the final bow before applause has faded and he is left on stage, a forlorn figure still hungry for more.
Jaafari's inability to bow out cost Iraq almost five months of paralysis at the center of the state apparatus. Even in normal situations a week is a long time in politics. One can guess what five months means in Iraq's present situation that can hardly be regarded as normal.
Al-Maliki has several other advantages over Allawi and Jaafari.
Unlike Allawi, who is seen by his fellow— Shiites as something of a secularist turncoat, Al-Maliki has impeccable religious credentials. And unlike Jaafari, who is wrongly seen by some Iraqi nationalists as too close to Iran, Al-Mailki is recognized as a champion of Uruqa (Iraqiness).
But is Al-Maliki up to the job assigned him as a result of complex political maneuvers?
Obviously, no one has the answer at the outset. He has the political experience, the personal stature, the capacity for hard work, and the intellectual discipline required. But all those ingredients would not make a good mix without a dose of luck.
What is important is that Al-Maliki should set the right agenda; and he seems to be doing that.
He has started by de-emphasizing the issue of federalism.
Many Arab Sunnis, concerned about the break-up of the country across ethnic and sectarian lines, see federalism as a road map for disaster. Unlike Jaafari who had highlighted plans for creating an autonomous Shiite region as part of a broader federal plan, Al-Maliki has made it clear that this will not be a priority of his government.
Equally encouraging is Al-Maliki's pledge to bring the various militias under government control as a prelude to disarming them.
But, once again, Al-Maliki, acknowledging that politics is the art of the possible, has made it clear that he is not looking for an instant solution.
Allawi had promised to disband the militias at a time that the new Iraqi government lacked even a single reliable police unit of its own. Now that the Iraqi government does have a creditable army and police, putting an end to the presence of militias looks more realistic. But even then it would be wrong to focus all energies on a quick disbanding of the militias that, in many cases, act as a deterrent to insurgents and terrorists seeking to de-stabilize new Iraq.
The fact that Al-Maliki has refrained from making grandiloquent statements is also refreshing. Unlike some Arab politicians who, when engaged in an oratorical exercise, recognize no self-restraint, Al-Maliki, although an amateur poet, has refused to mount the steed of rhetorical fantasies.
Al-Maliki must do four things before the year is out.
The first is to form a government acceptable to most, if not all, Iraqis.
This is now possible, partly thanks to the courage and wisdom of Sunni Arab leaders who have realized that their community could not be represented by the remnants of the Baath and its terrorist allies. Al— Maliki must acknowledge and reward that courage and wisdom by giving Sunni Arabs a real share of power.
Al-Maliki's second task is to re-start the administration.
Some ministries are still hibernating, and many government employees, including policemen, teachers and doctors, do not receive their salaries on time. Contracts signed for urgent public works projects, including infrastructural repairs, remain unfulfilled as a result of bureaucratic wrangling. To all that must be added widespread corruption that, in some cases, exceeds the levels traditionally tolerated even in Arab countries. The new prime minister's third task is more tangible: Giving the Iraqis a minimum of electricity before summer heat renders life even more unbearable.
It is a mystery why the United States, the world's last remaining "superpower" as its friends and foes like to remind everyone, has failed to make up for a 22 percent increase in electricity production that would meet all of Iraq's current needs. The US claims to have spent hundreds of billions of dollars in Iraq over the past three years. Iraq is full of reports and rumors about giant power plants that are under construction while at least two major Western companies claim to have shipped the machinery needed. And yet power production, which had shown a slight increase in 2004, appears to have fallen back to 2003 levels.
Lenin once said that Bolshevism means socialism plus electricity for the poorest Russian villages. In Iraq today, what the average citizen wants is electricity plus political freedoms.
Al-Maliki's fourth task is to develop a national consensus on what to do about the foreign troops present in Iraq.
The current United Nations' mandate under which the US-led coalition is present in Iraq runs out at the end of this year and cannot be extended by the UN because Iraq now has its freely elected government.
Apart from the terrorists and the insurgents no one in Iraq wants the US-led troops to leave immediately but no one wants them to stay indefinitely either. Iraqis are unanimous in their desire to see the US-led coalition leave as soon as possible. They are divided on what is meant by "as soon as possible." But, when it comes to the coalition's military presence, Iraq is only once side of the equation. The other side consists of the US and its allies, all of whom wish to get out as fast as they can.
Al-Maliki should reaffirm the existing timetable under which the departure of the coalition troops must begin early next year. But for such a plan to become operational it is necessary for Iraq and the coalition to agree on a detailed timetable and sign the legal instruments needed to implement it.
To sum up: Al-Maliki's success will be measured by whether he can bring the Sunnis in, pay public sector workers on time, keep the electricity current on, and arrange for the coalition troops to leave.