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Newsbreak: A majority of the nation's lawmakers have now taken a firm stand. They signed onto legislation to set a timetable for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq. And, despite President Bush's ongoing surge, freezing U.S. troops at current levels.
The legislation also declares there can be no extension of the U.N. mandate for international troops in Iraq, which expires at the end of 2007, without the approval of Iraq's parliament.
But Bush cannot make it go away by vetoing it as he has other U.S. congressional troop-withdrawal measures. Because this bill was drafted in the Iraqi Parliament. By last week, a majority of Iraq's lawmakers had signed their names to it.
Don't be hard on yourself if you never saw this front-page news. For it first appeared in The Washington Post on May 11, back on page A12. The New York Times caught up a day later, playing the story, headlined "Majority of Iraq Lawmakers Seek Timetable for U.S. Exit," on page A6.
Like all news in all capitals, the significance of this development can be spun more than one way. "The development was a sign of a growing division between Iraq's legislators and prime minister that mirrors the widening gulf between the Bush administration and its critics in Congress," was the second sentence in the Post's report.
The New York Times also noted that Iraq's lawmakers have demanded a withdrawal schedule despite the prime minister's objections — much like the U.S. congressional Democrats have done despite the president's objections. However, that report went on to suggest a way Team Bush can spin the significance: "But in another respect the petition brings the majority of Iraqi legislators into agreement with the Bush administration: both argue that an American withdrawal should depend on the readiness of Iraqi troops."
If spreading democracy to the Middle East was our president's goal, then to this extent, he can declare "mission accomplished." What we have here is an example of the untidiness of democracy in action (which should not automatically be confused with democracy inaction, even though it often turns out that way). The untidiness stems from the basic rule that democracy basically means that the majority rules — but hopefully cannot dictate. Iraq, a nation with a Shiite majority, has a parliament with a Shiite majority. And it is no surprise that Shiites comprise most of those who have signed the draft bill (which the Times, being a day late, calls a "petition"). But Sunnis have signed the draft bill, too, as has at least one Kurd.
The anti-American militant Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr was reportedly behind the drafting of the bill; which is in itself interesting considering that he is the one who put into office Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, who says he opposes it — and who has also refused to crack down on al-Sadr's militia, which has been waging unchartered civil war against Sunni insurgents. The bill has been signed by 144 members of al-Sadr's bloc, which is influential in Iraq's 275-member Parliament.
Meanwhile, on May 15, alert Washington Post readers may have discovered one other report of front-page news — if they made it to A15, the op-ed page. Columnist David Ignatius reported from Baghdad about meetings the new head of the U.S. Central Command, Adm. William Fallon, had with Shiite and Sunni leaders. Shiite cleric Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, who has his own militia, told Fallon "the real problem in Iraq is the Sunnis." He rejected the admiral's call for them to make concessions, insisting that sharing oil revenue and easing de-Bathification efforts won't cause Sunnis to stop their insurgency. Then, separately, the Sunni leader Tariq al-Hashimi presented a list of concessions the government must first make, insisting "the man in the driver's seat is the prime minister."
Ignatius then asked: "So what can U.S. military commanders do to break the sectarian deadlock?" Because, as Fallon concluded, the real solution must be political and not military, perhaps the real question is: Why are our military commanders being sent to spearhead a mission that is non-military, which must be a political assault? There is only one chance for a solution: Bush must take command. Personally and directly, he must spearhead one last effort to forge a political peace. Through the sheer force of his persona, will, desperation and determination — fortified by his limited arsenal of gray cells within his post-bellum cerebellum — he must quit sending ignorable emissaries and do the one thing he has never done. Take command of a final, front-line political assault against sectarian ingrates, weaklings and thugs.
Forge a peace or fail. But try. Bring it on.
(Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail him at martin.schram(at)gmail.com.)