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Published: Thursday, 10/21/2010

Unsettled Iraq

The U.S. war in Iraq, now more than seven years old, continues with a reduced American presence.

U.S. forces now stand at about 50,000. They are theoretically involved only in training Iraq's security forces, although they also anchor the line as the country seeks stability in the face of its many divisions and problems.

Perhaps most troubling is the fact that, seven months after national elections were held, a government is still not in place. Former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi's party finished first and incumbent Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's finished second, neither with a majority of seats in parliament.

Mr. al-Maliki has declined to leave office and is still seeking support among other parties and abroad, including in Iran, to remain in power in spite of his electoral defeat. He added the party of anti-American cleric Moktada al-Sadr to his tentative coalition, but that still didn't give him enough seats in the 325-member parliament to form a government.

In the meantime, incidents of violence, in Baghdad and elsewhere, continue to increase. The problem is the same as it has always been in Iraq, including during the Saddam Hussein years. The population is divided into Shiites at 60 percent, Sunnis at 20 percent, and Kurds at 20 percent.

If Iraq were run as a democracy, as the United States has directed since the 2003 invasion, the Shiites would be on top. But the Sunnis ruled the country from 1932 until the invasion, and the Kurds are sitting on a considerable portion of the country's oil. The need for a participatory coalition is clear but so far unattainable, even under considerable U.S. pressure.

Some Sunnis signed on with Americans in 2006 after having fought them, in a U.S.-backed arrangement called the Awakening Councils. The councils are composed of Arab fighters who turned on al-Qaeda, a factor credited with reducing violence in Iraq. That device has fizzled and some Sunnis are returning to active, armed opposition to the al-Maliki Shiite government and its American supporters.

The U.S. government's agreement to withdraw all its forces from Iraq by the end of 2011 remains valid. In America's best interests, and to let Iraqis work out their own destiny without U.S. influence, that timetable must be observed.

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