By John Negroponte
This commentary was published in Foreign Policy on 21/12/2010
On Dec. 21, Iraq formed a new government under the leadership of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. One might be tempted to say that after nine months of jockeying for position between the various factions and parties, it was high time. But looking back at all that has transpired since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in March 2003, the fact that Iraq's freely elected parliament has sworn in a new Iraqi cabinet is indeed a remarkable achievement.
This is the fifth government this beleaguered country has had in slightly less than eight years. First, there was the occupation authority assisted by an Iraqi Governing Council; that was followed by an interim government, then a transitional government, and finally two successive governments led by Maliki. Interspersed between the last three governments have been three general elections and a national referendum to adopt a new constitution.
The government that will soon be coming to power is a coalition comprising the country's major factions, including both Sunni and Shiite blocs in parliament. This does not by any means guarantee Iraq's peaceful, democratic, and prosperous future. But it does mean the country has a chance to attain a freer and better life than anyone had reason to expect a decade ago.
Important tasks lie ahead. Foremost among them is the nurturing of a spirit of communal tolerance and understanding that can help ensure political disputes aren't resolved by violence. Another related challenge is the continued strengthening of Iraq's national institutions, including the Army and the police force. When I arrived in 2004, there was one battalion in the entire Iraqi Army. Today, there are about 200. In total, Iraqi security forces now number roughly 500,000 people, and their capabilities are steadily improving. Their consolidation and professionalization should continue on a strictly nonpartisan, nonsectarian basis.
As Iraq's basic political and security institutions grow in stability, confidence, and stature, they will be better able to work on achieving sustained economic growth, which has suffered from the instability of recent years. Iraq is far from realizing its economic potential: Trade and investment languish, while the oil sector is but a fraction of full potential. Now that some of the most difficult political and security obstacles have been hurdled, it would not be surprising to see the people and government of Iraq turn more attention to developing and carrying out an economic growth agenda that is long overdue. This would benefit not only the Iraqi nation itself but also the international community as a whole. Although the U.S. military profile in Iraq will likely end in December 2011, America's interest in a peaceful and prosperous Iraq will no doubt endure long beyond that time. And having a functioning, if imperfect, government is a step in the right direction.