While Iraqis are optimistic about the future, car bombs and assassinations have shattered the post-election honeymoon of Iraq's first elected government in a half-century. There has also been political chaos. Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari took months to piece together his Cabinet, and several key posts remain unfilled.
Despite the relief of a milestone achieved, many U.S. officials are concerned about the lack of Sunni participation in the government. Senior U.S. officials continue to discuss a Sunni strategy, meant to deflate Arab Sunni support for the insurgency and encourage Sunni participation. While well-intentioned, such efforts will backfire.
The core of the Sunni strategy is political and material outreach to Iraq's Sunni Arab population. Material support has a spotty record. The chief political problem with a Sunni strategy is not the message, but the messenger. Across the political spectrum, Iraqis are nationalistic. They resent outside lectures.
When Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld visited Baghdad on April 12 and told reporters that "it's important that the new government be attentive to the competence of the people in the ministries and that they avoid unnecessary turbulence," he undercut existing homegrown reconciliation efforts. Any U.S. outreach to Iraqi insurgents fans more violence by implying Iraqi government impotence.
Newly inaugurated Iraqi ministers also resent recent procedures by senior diplomats in Baghdad opposing de-Baathification.
U.S. officials say de-Baathification victimizes the Sunni population and undercuts security gains. They are wrong.
Ordinary Iraqis - Shiites, Sunnis, Kurds - say former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi lost the election largely because his re-Baathification policies failed to bring the security he promised. His tenure coincided with the worst of the insurgency.
In the weeks before the election, many Iraqis said their main issue was not ethnicity, but security. Many Iraqis labeled Mr. Allawi a hypocrite because he used U.S. security guards, an indication he had no confidence in his own forces. Any Iraqi politician who accepts U.S. protection will hemorrhage support.
It is also a mistake for diplomats to conflate Baathism with a single community. Iraq's mass graves hold a number of Arab Sunnis. Conversely, many Kurds and Shiites were Baathists. Any former Baathist who wants to participate in the new Iraq should declare his past activities, who reported to him and to whom he reported. When several dozen Iraqi recruits are stopped, taken off buses and executed, Iraqis suspect an inside job.
Iraqis often complain that Americans are more sectarian than Iraqis. One of every seven deputies of the United Iraqi Alliance, the so-called Shiite list, was Sunni Arab - a representation about equal to their proportion of the population but seldom acknowledged by diplomats.
If left alone, Iraqis do the right thing.
Before the election, I spent a lot of time with the United Iraqi Alliance as it organized its campaign. After dark, when security restrictions prevent American diplomats and journalists from venturing out, Sunni Arab politicians from Mosul, Baquba and elsewhere would visit the homes of leading Shiite officials to discuss concerns. After the elections, those who boycotted realized their strategy had backfired. Even the radical Association of Muslim Scholars has quietly reached out to sitting Shiite ministers. The only event that could shake such tentative rapprochement would be an American lecture.
While in the home of a Shiite official in mid-April, I watched as a series of men were ushered into one of these homes. Each sought to be defense minister, a post that is still vacant. Each was a Sunni Arab.
Ethnicity and sectarianism are factors in Iraq, but eight decades of common experience has also shaped a distinct Iraqi nationalism. Most Iraqis condemn terrorism and wish to see their country succeed. Sunni Arab worries of outside domination are not dissimilar from those of the Shiites and Kurds. This is why there is an active federalist discourse.
The Sunni Arab community does have problems. The Kurds have had de facto autonomy for 14 years, and Shiites have found guidance among their ayatollahs. Sunni Arabs have always looked toward a Sunni-dominated government for leadership. But the days of Sunni domination are over. Much of the violence now is Sunni on Sunni, as various factions fight for communal leadership.
If U.S. officials want to help the Sunni community reintegrate productively, they should neither reward violence nor undercut the legitimacy of those Sunni politicians who have eschewed violence and joined with the majority parties.
The White House might increase scholarships for all Iraqis to study in American universities and so facilitate emergence of a new leadership, but it should abandon its ham-fisted and condescending Sunni strategy and begin treating Iraq like a unified, sovereign nation. Left alone, the Iraqis will do the right thing.
Michael Rubin, editor of The Middle East Quarterly, is a former Pentagon staff assistant on Iran and Iraq and a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.