BAGHDAD, Aug. 25, 2012
President Barack Obama flew into Baghdad today on his end-of-term tour to highlight successes in U.S. foreign policy. At a time when the Arab-Israel negotiations remain mired in deadlock and Afghanistan remains mired in quagmire, Mr. Obama hailed the peaceful end of America's combat presence in Iraq as his only Middle East achievement. Speaking to a gathering of Iraqi and U.S. officials under the banner "Mission Actually Accomplished," Mr. Obama took credit for helping Iraq achieve a decent -- albeit costly -- end to the war initiated by President Bush. Aides said Mr. Obama would highlight the progress in Iraq in his re-election campaign.
Could we actually read such a news article in three years? I wouldn't bet on it. But I wouldn't rule it out either. Six years after the U.S. invasion, Iraq continues to unnerve and tantalize. Watching Iraqi politics is like watching a tightrope artist crossing a dangerous cavern. Nothing is easy when trying to transform a country brutalized by three decades of cruel dictatorship. It is one step, one election, one new law, at a time. Each is a struggle. Each is crucial.
This next step is particularly important, which is why we cannot let Afghanistan distract U.S. diplomats from Iraq. Remember: Transform Iraq and it will impact the whole Arab-Muslim world. Change Afghanistan and you just change Afghanistan.
Specifically, the Obama team needs to make sure that Iraq's bickering politicians neither postpone the next elections, scheduled for January, nor hold them on the basis of the 2005 "closed list" system that is dominated by party leaders. We must insist on an "open list" election, which creates more room for new faces by allowing Iraqis to vote for individual candidates and not just a party. This is what Iraq's spiritual leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, is demanding. It is a much more accountable system.
If we can get open-list voting, the next big step would be the emergence of Iraqi parties running for office on the basis of nonsectarian coalitions -- where Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds run together. This would be significant: Iraq is a microcosm of the whole Middle East, and if Iraq's sects can figure out how to govern themselves -- without an iron-fisted dictator -- democracy is possible in this whole region.
What is tantalizing is that the Iraqi prime minister, Nouri Kamal al-Maliki, who emerged from the Shiite Dawa Party, has decided to run this time with a pan-Iraqi, nationalist alliance of some 40 political parties, including Sunni tribal leaders and other minorities. Mr. Maliki was in Washington last week, and I interviewed him at the Willard Hotel.
"Iraq cannot be ruled by one color or religion or sect," he explained. "We clearly saw that sectarianism and ethnic grouping threatened our national unity. Therefore, I believe we should bring all these different colors together and establish Iraq as a country built on rule of law and equity and citizenship. The Iraqi people encouraged us. They want this. Other parties are also organizing themselves like this. No one can run anymore as a purely sectarian bloc ... Our experiment is very unique in this region."
That's for sure. The Iranians want pro-Tehran Shiite parties to dominate Iraq. Also, the Iranian dictatorship hates the idea of "inferior" Iraq holding real elections while Iran holds rigged ones. Most Arab leaders fear any real multisectarian democracy taking root in the neighborhood.
"The most dangerous thing that would threaten others is that if we really create success in building a democratic state in Iraq," said Mr. Maliki, whose country now has about 100 newspapers. "The countries whose regimes are built on one party, sect or ethnic group will feel endangered."
Mr. Maliki knows it won't be easy: "Saddam ruled for more than 35 years," he said. "We need one or two generations brought up on democracy and human rights to get rid of this orientation."
If this election comes off, it will be held with U.S. troops on hand. The even bigger prize and test will be four years hence, if Iraq can hold an election in which multiethnic coalitions based on differing ideas of governance -- not sectarianism -- vie for power, and the reins are passed from one government to another without any U.S. military involvement. That would be the first time in modern Arab history where true multisectarian coalitions contest power, and cede power, without foreign interference. That would shake up the whole region.
Yes, let's figure out Afghanistan. But let's not forget that something very important -- but so fragile and tentative -- is still playing out in Iraq, and we and our allies still need to help bring it to fruition.
Thomas L. Friedman is a syndicated columnist for The New York Times.