Speaking in Philadelphia on Monday, President Bush pointed to "four major milestones" in the post-Saddam political development of Iraq: transfer of sovereignty, elections for a transitional government, approval of a constitution and this week's parliamentary elections.
But with his talk of "encouraging Iraqi reconciliation," the president pointed toward a fifth milestone yet to be achieved: the successful romancing of Sunni Arab rejectionists by Iraq's Shiite majority.
Brokering a Sunni-Shiite political marriage is crucial to establishing the stability in Iraq needed for our troops to come home. It will be difficult, but it is not impossible.
A Western-style democracy won't break out in Baghdad soon -- or perhaps ever. But that doesn't mean Sunnis and Shiites cannot use the political foundation laid so far to establish an intra-Iraqi balance of power rooted in principles of representative government.
In recent speeches on Iraq, President Bush has described three enemies: Zarqawi's terrorists, who must be killed or captured; "Saddamists," who can be "marginalized and defeated"; and indigenous Sunni "rejectionists," the largest and most important adversary, who must be dealt with politically.
"We believe that over time most of this group will be persuaded to support a democratic Iraq led by a federal government that is strong enough to protect minority rights," Bush said of the rejectionists.
The evolving declarations of leading rejectionists demonstrate some progress has been made in this tremendously difficult task.
Just as Shiites have generally followed the lead of Iraq's pre-eminent Shiite clergyman, Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani, many Sunnis have generally followed the lead of Sheik Harith al Dari, leader of the Association of Muslim Scholars, Iraq's Sunni clerical organization. While Sistani has thus far tacitly, if disdainfully, accepted the U.S. presence in Iraq, which he sees as advancing Shiite interests, al Dari has supported armed resistance.
Sistani called for the January elections; Dari called for boycotting them. Shias voted heavily then; Sunnis didn't. Sistani endorsed the Iraqi constitution; Dari rejected it. Shias voted overwhelmingly for it; Sunni Arabs, largely against it. Where Sistani's influence is greatest, in southern Iraq, U.S. casualties are few. In the Sunni triangle, where the influence of Dari and the AMS is greatest, U.S. casualties mount.