August 6, 2007 -- WHEN President Bush launched the surge in Iraq, he based it on a key assumption: As America improved security in Baghdad and its environs, the Iraqi leadership would take the steps to translate military gains into political progress.
With the surge in its third month, even the most critical observers agree that, while violence still rages daily, the security situation in Baghdad and the two most turbulent provinces, Diyala and Anbar, has improved.
There has, however, been no corresponding progress on the Iraqi political scene. Although The National Assembly (parliament) has dealt with no more than a quarter of the legislative agenda it set for itself, its members voted themselves a long holiday.
Worse still, those politicians still in Baghdad have resumed their favorite game of plotting against one another.
Former Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari is offering lavish dinner parties in which fesenjoun - a Persian meal of duck cooked in pomegranate juice and ground walnuts - is the favorite dish. Jaafari claims that - since the Americans are bound to run away once Bush is out of office - the Iraqi Shiite leadership had better restore its damaged ties with the Islamic Republic in Tehran.
To do that, Jaafari claims, the Iraqis should replace Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whom the Iranian mullahs dislike, with someone acceptable to the Iranians. One need not probe too deep to find out that "someone" means Jaafari himself.
Jaafari belongs to the Islamist party Dawa (The Call), which only last month elected Maliki as its leader. The former premier has approached Muqtada al-Sadr, the firebrand mullah with ties to Tehran, offering an alliance.
Sadr, however, has his own plans: He is lying low until the Americans crush the Sunni insurgents and al Qaeda - and then, once a Democrat takes the White House, pack and leave. At that time, Sadr could re-emerge, revive his Mahdi Army as the largest militia in the country and bid for power with the help of Tehran and the Lebanese Hezbollah.
Jaafari and Sadr are encouraged by the fact that Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, their chief rival in the Shiite camp, is in Iran, suffering from possibly terminal cancer. Ammar, Hakim's son and putative heir as leader of the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), is too young to claim a senior position immediately.
The cast of characters also includes Ahmad Chalabi, arguably the wiliest of new Iraqi politicians. Chalabi failed to win a seat in parliament but has remained influential as the prime minister's "adviser." Once a favorite of Washington to rule post-Saddam Iraq, Chalabi says he has learned not to trust the Americans, who are incapable of knowing friend from foe. (L. Paul Bremmer, the former U.S. proconsul in Baghdad, gave Chalabi a hard time, accusing him of spying for Tehran.)
Not only pro-Tehran groups threaten Maliki's fragile coalition. The pro-Arab Shiite groups are also working to unseat the prime minister, arguing that he has failed to reassert Iraq's "Arab identity." Leading the pro-Arab onslaught on Maliki is Iyad Allawi, a secular Shiite who served as interim prime minister in the first post-Saddam Iraqi administration.
Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan - three of the four key Arab players in Iraq - may back Allawi. But the fourth, Syria, mistrusts Allawi and is uneasy about his anti-Iranian stance. And the Iranian mullahs would regard a new administration headed by Allawi as a provocation. Forced to tolerate Maliki, they would find it impossible to put up with Allawi.
Meanwhile, the largest Arab-Sunni bloc has suspended its participation in Maliki's coalition and is shopping around for allies that offer the most concessions. However, some smaller Arab-Sunni parties - which think Maliki offers the best option for the time being or, at the other extreme, seek to restore their community's domination of Iraq - oppose the bloc.
Watching all the maneuvers is Grand Ayatollah Ali-Muhammad Sistani, the primus inter pares of Shiite clerical hierarchy. In the communications that we get from the grand ayatollah, one question is asked persistently: Will the Americans leave after Bush ends his term?
So far, Sistani has refrained from endorsing any group in the Shiite power struggle, because he firmly believes the clergy should not have a direct political role. He hopes that the U.S.-led Coalition will remain at least until after the next Iraqi general election in 2009. But he can't publicly defend that position because, if the Americans do run away, he would end up as the naive man who trusted the "infidel."
There is also the fact that, as more and more Iraqis learn the political game and start getting organized in their various parties, they are less and less inclined to seek political guidance from Sistani.
While Arab Sunni and Shiite communities have always been split, the ethnic Kurdish community, accounting for some 20 percent of Iraq's population, had hitherto managed to remain united. However, that unity is also threatened.
A group of younger Kurdish politicians is campaigning for what it calls "a generational turnover." The group wants Jalal Talabani, the veteran Kurdish leader who serves as Iraq's president, to retire, allowing a younger man to move up the ladder. Their candidate for the presidency is Barham Saleh, now a deputy prime minister and one of new Iraq's most successful politicians.
Both Talabani and Saleh belong to the same group, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). The other major Kurdish group, Massoud Barzani's Democratic Party of Kurdistan of Iraq (KDPI) is trying to keep its involvement in the broader Iraqi politics to a minimum. Barzani has a long history of closeness with Tehran and may back a pro-Iranian horse in exchange for a promise that the Kurds gain control of the northern city of Kirkuk at the expense of Arab Sunnis.
Tell the Iraqis that their political games may help the enemy, and they will tell you that they are practicing nothing but democracy.
As always, the situation in Iraq can be saved only if two conditions are met:
* First, a bipartisan accord in Washington not to board that last helicopter from Baghdad.
* Second, a genuine accord among Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish parties and groups not to interpret military success against the insurgents as a signal for internecine feuds motivated by sectarian prejudices and a thirst for power.
Rather than organizing fruitless talks with the Islamic Republic, the Bush administration should bring together the Iraqi leaders, including those sunbathing on the French Riviera, to patch up differences and create a strong administration capable of building on the surge's successes. And, if the Iraqis do their part, it would be easier to work for the real big thing: a bipartisan American policy on a war that can and must be won.