PHILADELPHIA -- Iraq finally has a prime minister-designate, Nouri al-Maliki. But what does that mean?
His is not a well-known face; his reputation is that of a religious Shiite hard-liner. An opponent of Saddam Hussein, he lived many years in exile in Iran and Syria, but opposed the U.S. invasion of his country. So is his arrival good news that might lead to a U.S. troop drawdown?
Mr. al-Maliki's emergence is good news because four months of post-election paralysis and the resulting power vacuum had propelled Iraq to the verge of real civil war.
The Shiite political bloc that won the most seats in the December elections had chosen acting Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari to run the country for the next four years - by one vote.
But Mr. al-Jaafari was a vague, incoherent leader who alienated Kurds, Sunnis and many of his fellow Shiites by failing to consult with politicians from other parties or run a functional government. He could not get the necessary votes for ratification from Iraq's new assembly, so the political process was frozen.
Ministries had become personal fiefs of corrupt ministers. The interior ministry was a haven for Shiite militias that assassinated Sunnis. The radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr became the power behind Mr. al-Jaafari. And Mr. al-Jaafari was strongly backed by Iran, which pushed his candidacy furiously because Tehran felt he was malleable. Mr. al-Jaafari's alienation of other factions created a weak government, which gave Iran more leverage over Iraq.
Mr. al-Jaafari stepped down only when the foremost Shiite cleric, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, forcefully intervened. Mr. al-Sistani demanded that Shiites pick a man who could unify Iraq, or else he would stop backing the Shiite bloc.
Mr. al-Jaafari caved, but insisted the new choice must come from his own Dawa Party, a Shiite Islamist organization. Mr. al-Maliki had been Mr. al-Jaafari's spokesman.
So is this man any different from his former boss? Can Mr. al-Maliki really unify the country? Maybe. Sunnis feel Mr. al-Maliki isn't as close to Mr. al-Sadr, the feared radical Shiite. Nor is Mr. al-Maliki as close to Iran.
Moreover, Mr. al-Maliki's personality is very different from Mr. al-Jaafari's, Iraqis repeatedly have told me. In the last few weeks, Mr. al-Maliki took part in negotiations with Sunnis and Kurds over preliminary programs meant to underpin a unity government. Mr. al-Maliki, they say, is forthright and speaks his mind (unlike Mr. al-Jaafari). Even if his views don't accord with those of Kurds or Sunnis, they feel they can negotiate with him.
For the first time, a national unity government may be formed that includes a major bloc of moderate Sunnis. Whether such a government can quell insurgent violence, or prevent sectarian conflict from worsening, is another question.
The violence probably will worsen, at least in the beginning. Hard-core Sunni insurgents, especially Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, with his links to al-Qaida, will try to promote civil war and chaos.
Sunni insurgents will be hoping that Shiite militias continue to torture and execute Sunni civilians, thus heightening the tension. Mr. al-Zarqawi and the Baathists are trying to create so much chaos that Iraqis will yearn for a return to Sunni rule.
Mr. al-Maliki's challenge will be to show ordinary Sunnis that they have more to gain from the political process than from tolerating the insurgents. That will require him to push for a legal formula that gives Sunnis a fair share of future Iraqi oil profits - an issue left vague in the new constitution. It will also require him to restrain Shiite militias from revenge killings against Sunni civilians. In turn, Mr. al-Maliki will have to permit Sunnis to form national guard units in their own areas to protect their people.
In the current climate of violence, sectarian groups trust only their own kind to defend them. To hold Iraq together, Mr. al-Maliki will have to accept a degree of de facto sectarian separation.
Neither U.S. forces nor the new Iraqi army can prevent civil war or stop it once it breaks out in full fervor. The Herculean task of preventing such a disaster will fall on Iraqi clerics and politicians, especially the untested Mr. al-Maliki. How he performs will determine how fast Americans can leave.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Her column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. Her e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.