SINCE THE March 7 national elections in Iraq, we have watched the high drama and low comedy of the government-formation process: candidates disqualified and reinstated, fraud alleged, recounts ordered and results upheld, coalitions forming and shifting in bewildering variations. And when all of this is finally concluded and a new government is formed, it will face a huge agenda of unresolved issues: Kurdish-Arab tensions; disputed internal boundaries; corruption; challenges from neighbors; institutional development; friction among federal, regional and local governments—the list is virtually endless. The truth is that more than seven years after the launch of Operation Iraqi Freedom, Iraq is still at the very beginning of this chapter in its long history.
IRAQ IS hard. It has always been hard, and it will go on being hard. In Islam’s first century, a rebellion of the Khawarij in Iraq (whose fundamentalist theology and inclination to violence resemble that of al-Qaeda) necessitated the dispatch of the Umayyad Empire’s most successful and ruthless general, al-Hajjaj ibn Yusuf. He began a famous speech at the Kufa mosque with these words: “Ya ahl al-Iraq, ahl al-shiqaq wa al-nifaq” (“Oh people of Iraq, people of disunity and hypocrisy”). Iraqis quote him today with perverse pride—they are the toughest guys on the Middle Eastern block.