These days, it's hard to muster any optimism about Iraq's future: Killings and bombings remain a daily occurrence in Baghdad, oil production barely limps along and American troops are dug in for the duration. But the new prime minister designee, Nouri al-Maliki, may be a reason for a change in attitude. He is saying the right things about policing sectarian militias. He has acknowledged the impact Sunni Muslim ministers could have on the insurgency. He has put a priority on returning basic services to Iraqis.
Having the right agenda is one thing; delivering on it is quite another. But in the political quagmire of Iraq, Mr. al-Maliki's public endorsement of those basic yet critical needs is important. His nomination as prime minister has broken a months-long stalemate on forming Iraq's first permanent, postwar government.
The Bush administration has pegged improvements in Iraq - and potential U.S. troop reductions - on the establishment of a stable, working government. Mr. al-Maliki, who represents the majority Shiite parties, has his work cut out for him. The sectarian violence has ravaged Iraqi society in the areas around Baghdad and infiltrated the country's fledgling police force. Sunnis, the ruling minority under Saddam Hussein, won't settle for nonessential Cabinet posts. A real stake in the government might undercut the Sunni-backed insurgency that has fueled the mayhem and bloodletting. But stemming the violence also requires reining in militias that report to powerful and popular Shiite clerics. What sway Mr. al-Maliki will have over them - or their leaders - is unclear.
But the potential for change telegraphed by the new government of Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds was enough to unsettle Iraq's leading terrorist. In a new videotape released this week, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi felt the need to discredit the unity government. He called it a "poisoned dagger in the heart of the Muslim nation" and derided its members as stooges. Whom was he trying to convince?
An Iraqi government that could settle its internecine disputes would be a start toward stabilizing the country, defanging the homegrown insurgency and undercutting al-Qaida's agenda. The unannounced visits by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice were choreographed to emphasize President Bush's commitment to a new Iraq.
But personal congratulations won't bolster Mr. al-Maliki's government. The Bush administration would do better to improve its dismal performance in rebuilding the country.