How To Exploit The Opening

You've read all the cautions. This is not a turning point. Zarqawi's death is not a seismic event. He was not that brilliant or strategic. He will be replaced. Al Qaeda is just one of the many militias running rampant in Iraq. All true. And so, the violence continues. But there are some political signs--no more than glimmers--that make me just a bit hopeful. First, Zarqawi's death might be a sign of the changing attitude of some radical Sunnis.

Zarqawi was likely betrayed by someone close to his organization, perhaps even someone within it. His extreme ideology and actions were turning off Sunnis, even those who had allied with him. His increasing

brutalities against Shiite civilians--blowing up mosques--were not popular. In a recent audiotape, he urged the killing of Grand Ayatollah Sistani, who is respected (even if not revered) by many Sunnis. Last week, in Fallujah, the heart of radical Sunni land, Zarqawi's men tried to destroy the tomb of a Sunni saint because, according to Al Qaeda's puritanical interpretation of Islam, such shrines are blasphemous. But Fallujah's Sunnis, even the radical and fundamentalist among them, have long respected such sites. The result was a pitched battle between Al Qaeda and other Sunni insurgent groups. The latter won.

Then there is the changing attitude of some radical Shiites. More important than Zarqawi's death last week was the completion of the cabinet in Baghdad, which included a Sunni defense minister. Earlier in the week Iraq's Prime Minister, Nuri al-Maliki, announced the release of about 600 prisoners, a number that will go up to 2,000. It also reported that Maliki will present a national reconciliation plan at a conference sponsored by the Arab League later this month. The proposal apparently will make some provision to end de-Baathification in its current form, and include an offer to reintegrate Sunnis who abandon the insurgency. Such an initiative would represent an attempt by Maliki to address key Sunni demands and draw some of the more moderate insurgent groups into the mainstream political process.

Maliki is also beginning to move on the militias. One of his first official acts as prime minister was to go down to the city of Basra, where Shia militias run rampant, and declare a state of emergency. He has also spoken up about disbanding all militias in Iraq. His actions have provoked angry reactions from his rivals within the Shia alliance, chiefly SCIRI, which has its militias throughout Basra. SCIRI's leader, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, and his son, Mohsen al-Hakim, have both given interviews in the past few days (to Knight Ridder and the Financial Times) that indirectly criticize Maliki's new direction. This internal Shia dissension has been the principal cause of the delays and dysfunction in Iraq's government. And it may get worse now as the tensions rise to the surface. Maliki will have to tackle not just Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, but Moqtada al-Sadr. However, Zarqawi's death has given Maliki greater popularity and thus a stronger hand with which to deal with all his challengers.

Maliki sees his job, first and foremost, as creating security, and he wants to do it by using more troops and focusing them in Baghdad. That's a good idea, but true security will now require a lot more than firepower. Maliki has to rebuild basic political order. Consider an analogy. Imagine if after the fall of apartheid in South Africa, the black majority had come to power and decided to dismantle the entire apparatus of the Afrikaner state. Let's say they disbanded the army, which had slaughtered them, and then fired all the whites in the civil service. The result would have been chaos, a dysfunctional state, and--in all probability--the rise of an Afrikaner insurgency. But they did none of that. On the contrary, the ANC was extraordinarily forgiving, reassuring white South Africans that they would have an important place in the new South Africa. As a result, South Africa has been more politically stable and economically successful than anyone would have predicted in 1994.

The contrast is obvious. The United States disbanded the Iraqi army and fired 40,000 bureaucrats after taking over Iraq, on the urging of some--though not all--Shia political leaders. We see the results. For two years now we have been attempting to reverse course. But to build a stable political order, it will take more than just an Iraqi military. It will take an Iraqi Mandela.