Political Progress in Iraq? Maybe, if Congress Butts Out

The rush to find an exit strategy from Iraq is on. Because nobody wants to leave behind a festering civil war that could make the current level of violence look trivial in comparison, Washington is now preoccupied with a last-minute attempt to conjure political reconciliation out of the hot desert air.

Congress is falling over itself to establish "benchmarks" for political progress in Iraq, as if some formal declaration of tasks to be accomplished will suddenly galvanize Iraqi politicians into action.

Unfortunately, the reality on the ground is quite different.

Not only is there substantial political resistance to all three main benchmarks -- a new oil law, a revision of the constitution and a reversal of the de-Baathification campaign -- but the very fact that the United States is pushing so hard is creating defiant resistance among some Iraqi politicians who gain political kudos at home by standing up to American pressure.

"National reconciliation in Iraq faces failure because of the interference of the occupation forces," said Nassar al-Rubaie, a member of parliament from Moqtada al-Sadr's party.

Resistance to the oil law is coming most vigorously from the Kurds, who fear the proposed law would limit their ability to control new oil fields found in their territory. The draft law has been ready for some time but has yet to be submitted to parliament. "Unfortunately, the Kurdish side is holding it up," said Humam Hamoudi of the United Iraqi Alliance party, a Shiite grouping in parliament. "To be honest, this is not helping the political process."

The revision to the constitution is also a high priority for Sunnis, who fear that, as written, it would allow for the breakup of Iraq into three zones, allowing the Shiites and Kurds to withdraw to the oil-rich south and north, leaving the Sunnis with a strip of worthless desert in the center. "We have to amend the draft [constitution]," said vice president Tariq al Hashimi, "to accommodate more Iraqis."

A constitutional reform committee is due to report to parliament next week, but neither Shiites nor Kurds are in any hurry to adopt changes.

De-Baathification is now regarded almost universally as one of the most catastrophic mistakes made by Paul Bremer, the former U.S. proconsul in Iraq. In an attempt to get rid of Saddam's legacy, Bremer excluded thousands of former Baath party members, many of quite junior status, from the current government. Many went over to the insurgents to fight to get their power back.

But reversing the decree to bring Baathist party members back into the fold -- and away from the insurgency -- is opposed by many Shiite politicians, who have bitter memory of the oppression they once suffered at the hands of Saddam's Baath party.

Fundamentally, all three benchmarks are designed to coax Sunnis back into the political process, as they were summarily kicked out by the U.S. invasion four years ago. But as the Shiite government increases in power and self-confidence, Shiites see little reason for sharing any of that power with their former oppressors, as they regard the Sunnis. Shiites of all political stripes said they want to stand up on their own, and the more U.S. politicians attempt to dictate their behavior to them, the more they will resist.

Tabulating benchmarks just gives a more visible target to resist. Four years into this war, Washington is still struggling to understand why Iraqis don't behave the way Americans do. Mysterious place, this …