If you care when American soldiers will come home from Iraq, pay attention to the power struggle in Baghdad.
Two months have gone by since Iraqi elections, but there still is no new government. Members of the elected assembly are so deeply divided by religion and ethnicity they haven't yet been able to choose a president or a prime minister.
On Tuesday, President Bush prematurely praised the new assembly in apparent expectation that it would pick new officials. "In forming their new government," the president said, "the Iraqis have shown that the spirit of compromise has survived more than three decades of dictatorship."
But there has been little "spirit of compromise" in Iraqi history, even before Saddam. The assembly's difficulty in divvying up the pie reflects this lack of experience.
Politics in Iraq, indeed much of the Middle East, has been a zero-sum game, meaning one side held the power and the rest obeyed or went to jail. The whole Iraq experiment now depends on Iraqis' ability to rise above history.
If they succeed, they will indeed become a model for a new Middle East. The road is not impossible, but it is entirely uphill.
Iraq's elections produced a highly sectarian victory -- with major parties organized along ethnic and religious lines. The famous ink-stained Iraqi V-for-victory was not meant to signify victory for an abstraction like "democracy." It meant victory for the long-repressed Shiite majority, who turned out in huge numbers at the urging of their clerics to vote for the Shiite coalition. Iraqi's former rulers, the minority Arab Sunnis, mostly boycotted the election.
Many Sunnis can't accept that Saddam's fall means they no longer dominate the country; the insurgency is largely a Sunni effort to regain power.
Meantime, the Shiite majority is tasting power for the first time. They are wary of the Sunnis who had repressed them for decades.
Iraq's Kurds trust neither the Shiites (too religious) nor the Sunnis (who murdered Kurds by the hundreds of thousands). The Kurds want independence from Iraq but have opted to take part in national politics at the insistence of their American ally and their powerful neighbor, Turkey.
The new Iraqi assembly will ultimately choose a government, but unless all three major Iraqi factions are satisfied, the violence in Iraq will go on.
So what are the odds on a stable government?
The Shiite victors believe they can hold the country together. They view themselves as analogous to the blacks of South Africa and see the Sunnis as clones of South Africa's whites in the waning days of the apartheid regime. Top Shiite leaders told me in January that Sunnis -- like South African whites -- would get used to their reduced share of power.
"South African white parties boycotted elections and faced off with (South African black leader Nelson) Mandela," I was told by leading Iraqi Shiite politician Ibrahim Jaafari, the majority Shiite coalition's choice for future prime minister. "But the elections went on."
Jaafari and others said the Sunnis had a role to play in Iraqi politics but it must reflect their minority status. Shiites are the numerical majority, and they are eager to have the power that implies.
The South Africa analogy is promising but has limitations when applied to Iraq.
The good news is that Shiite leaders recognize the need to reach out to their once-powerful enemies. They intend to offer Sunnis government posts and powerful cabinet positions, despite the paucity of Sunnis elected to the assembly due to the boycott. The Shiites hope to bring enough Sunnis into the political tent to undercut the insurgents.
But the bad news is that there isn't exactly a Shiite Mandela.
The leading Shiite cleric, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, has paralleled Mandela's critical role as a conciliator. He has forbidden his flock to seek revenge against Sunnis, and urged them to invite Sunnis to play a political role. But the elderly cleric rarely leaves his study and isn't a politician.
So far, there is no one who can duplicate Mandela's political charisma in persuading South African whites not to fear black majority rule.
More unnerving, no Sunni leader has emerged to play F.W. de Klerk, the South African who persuaded fellow whites the era of apartheid was over. Saddam eliminated any secular Sunni competition. As for Sunni clerics, many encouraged the boycott. There is no Sunni statesman who can speak for the community as a whole.
U.S. officials have rightly resisted the temptation to play godfather to Iraqi politics, leaving the factions to negotiate their own future. But that future hinges on the emergence of Iraqi leaders who can convince Iraq's "blacks" and "whites" that they can live together. Only then can Iraq build a stable government.
-- Trudy Rubin is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.