While Baghdad burns

March 12, 2006

If the central government in Iraq actually mattered - if it had any authority or could hope to exercise any real sovereignty - ordinary Iraqis would be furious over the languid pace of negotiations to put such a government together. Months after the elections, parliament has yet to convene and the various factions are nearly stalemated over the selection of a prime minister. The country went to the brink of civil war and back again after last month's bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra, and even that did nothing to convey a sense of urgency to those dickering over Cabinet posts.

But the truth of the matter is that the government, once formed, will still be woefully inadequate. Iraqi security forces are incapable of fighting without American support, which means that they are effectively under American and not Iraqi command. The police forces are thoroughly compromised by sectarian militias, as are local governing structures. What's left for the central government to handle? Even outside the areas where the insurgency is hottest, its sway is questionable, at best.

Last week, men wearing Iraqi police uniforms abducted 50 civilians working for a security firm. What's interesting about that is that the abductors may very well have been criminals or guerrillas wearing stolen uniforms - or they just as easily could have been real police officers, on some sort of private mission. Neither possibility is in the least encouraging.

Oil production is down 40 percent since Saddam Hussein's time. Unemployment is estimated at 35 percent to 50 percent. The Bush administration wants another $90 billion to pay for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, but little of the money spent so far seems to have done much good in putting Iraq back on its feet. The country is on the verge of coming apart at the seams.

In Baghdad, the factional leaders seem not to be preparing so much for a government of national unity as for the period that will follow once efforts to form such a government have collapsed. It's understandable, because the central government isn't worth much at this point, anyway. It will take unusual wisdom, a heroic vision, and a resourceful agility to stitch a real nation together - but those qualities are in short supply. And time is running out.

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