It has taken nine bloody and difficult months, but the deployment of 30,000 additional U.S. troops appears at last to have brought not just a lull in the sectarian fighting in Iraq, but the first tangible steps toward genuine political reconciliation.
Last week, the parliament passed a crucial package of legislation that reflects real compromise among the many factions on three of the thorniest issues that have bedeviled Iraq. First, a law requires that provincial elections be held by Oct. 1, and requires that a law spelling out the details on conducting the election be passed within 90 days.
This is essential because there hasn't been legitimate, elected local leadership in much of Iraq since Sunnis boycotted the 2005 local elections. Free elections of leaders who would be accountable to their populations would make it possible for the U.S. to hand over power in many Sunni areas and draw down.
Second, an amnesty law will allow the release of thousands of prisoners, most of whom are Sunnis and many of whom have been held for months in hideously overcrowded jails. The amnesty was a key condition for the Iraq Accord Front, a Sunni party, to return to the government of Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, which it quit last summer. Maliki reportedly hopes to form a new Cabinet soon.
The package also included a national budget, finally passed on the seventh try. It gives 17 percent of national revenues to Kurdistan - more than the Sunnis wanted, but a first try at the kind of painful compromise that will be essential in keeping Iraq from more violent Balkanization.
Ironically, all this good news might make it harder to get American military personnel out of the country. The better things go in Iraq, the less likely it is that U.S. generals (or politicians) will want to risk jeopardizing their hard-won gains by drawing down. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has agreed to a request by Gen. David H. Petraeus to return to the pre-surge level of about 130,000 troops by August, and then allow a "strategic pause" to evaluate whether more can come home.
Battlefield commanders know best how many troops are needed to keep the country stable, but as a political and economic matter, U.S. forces must leave Iraq eventually - sooner, if voters choose a Democratic president, much later if the president-elect is Republican John McCain. Either way, the United States needs a logical, orderly exit strategy that minimizes the risk that civil war will resume when our troops leave.
If the momentum of Iraq's political surge is sustained, it's conceivable that the United States, having torn the country apart in an ill-conceived invasion and a disastrous occupation, could help glue the biggest pieces together on its way out the door. But building a decent government will probably prove even harder than curbing the violence. And even under the rosiest scenario, it will be our moral duty to provide large-scale political, military and humanitarian aid, including support for the refugees who are beginning to trickle back home, for many years to come.