Washington — The change of command in Iraq offers an opportunity to move past the divisive domestic debate over the deployment of more troops to Baghdad, and instead put the pressure where it belongs - on the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
When Lt. Gen. David Petraeus, the new commander in Iraq, comes before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday, lawmakers are likely to hear a very different presentation from what they usually get from the Pentagon.
Rather than ask the senators to grant him free rein to operate as he wishes, Petraeus is ready, I am told, to invite and encourage the closest kind of congressional scrutiny of what is happening on the ground in Iraq.
The suggestion made here last week that Congress require frequent briefings from Petraeus and the embassy in Baghdad, to assure that Maliki is keeping his promises to supply troops and avoid political interference, is one Petraeus is prepared to endorse.
The weekly schedule I suggested is too frequent for the general; it would take up too much staff time. But he could manage a biweekly schedule of closed briefings, and it would accomplish the same goal - a constant reminder to Maliki that if he fails to cooperate with the strategic plan, any remaining support in Congress for his government will disappear.
Petraeus' offer, which I am told will be made in explicit terms unless his civilian bosses in the Pentagon and White House intervene, provides the best avenue yet to appear for dealing with the mess in Iraq.
It will not satisfy those in Congress who would like to block or protest the "surge" of additional troops into Iraq ordered by President Bush. But the resolutions and legislation they are discussing will not keep Bush from carrying out his plan.
In effect, Petraeus is offering a way to convert the opposition to the war that is growing in both Republican and Democratic ranks into leverage on Maliki. Together, they can hold the prime minister to his pledge to go after all the combatants - Shiites as well as Sunnis - and to provide the troops for the fight.
What makes this possible is the character of the new commander in Iraq. Petraeus, who will get his fourth star with this new assignment, is a tested combat leader, the former commanding officer of the 101st Airborne Division. But Petraeus, who has a Ph.D. from Princeton, also is the author of the Army guide to counterinsurgency warfare, and is a sophisticated student of both Iraqi and U.S. politics.
He knows what he needs to do to secure the support of Congress for his mission. And he has a realistic appraisal of the people he is dealing with in Baghdad, and is quite willing to lean hard on them.
In fact, even before the change of command in Iraq, Petraeus has sent a trusted translator to start preparing the Maliki government for the closer monitoring that lies ahead; he was in the picture when Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton met with Maliki during her recent visit to Iraq.
In his testimony, the general is expected to tell lawmakers that he believes the "surge" of 21,500 additional soldiers and Marines into Iraq can help suppress the sectarian violence in Baghdad - if Maliki keeps his end of the bargain.
If the streets are safe, it will be easier to insist that the Iraqis working in the ministries do their jobs, without fear of retaliation against their families or themselves.
But Petraeus, who spent 18 months trying to organize the training of Iraqi army and police forces in an earlier phase of the war, knows how tough a challenge it will be to improve either the Iraqi military or its bureaucracy. When then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld pulled him out of Iraq to run the Army Combined Arms Center at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., Sen. John McCain, among others, was furious that the ablest American in Iraq had been reassigned.
Returning to an Iraq where the security situation is now far worse, Petraeus is guardedly hopeful about the military mission.
But even if the violence can be quelled, a major concern is whether the other parts of our government - notably the State Department - are prepared for the effort it will take to get the Iraq economy up and running, unemployment down, the oil industry operating and the government ministries delivering the basic services people need and expect.
The challenge is immense, but for a change, there is a chance to get the full weight of our government pulling in the same direction. Congress ought to seize the opportunity.