The Iraqi government also must take urgent action and expend its own funds to facilitate the return of the 4 million Iraqis who have left the country or been displaced internally. Homes for squatters without legitimate leases must be found, rented, or built. Also, much more must be done to restore basic public services and repair infrastructure in areas lacking them, particularly Sunni areas. Iraq has ample resources to do so. Taking these actions will be among the most meaningful olive branches that can be offered to the Iraqi population.
Even before the new U.S. president's inauguration, his transition team must be prepared to signal his intentions and, if necessary, join the negotiation of the bilateral accord that is intended to replace the current United Nations mandate, if the accord has not yet been concluded. This accord implies a radical decrease in leverage for the United States, which has operated under broad U.N. authority, and a concomitant increase in Iraqi autonomy. If the accord has already been concluded, its terms must be reviewed to ensure that it does not commit the new administration in any way that will aid sectarian agendas or inhibit achievement of the above goals.
The fundamental reality is that Iraqis want and need U.S. assistance, at least for now. The Maliki government knows it is not strong enough to stand on its own, and it wants the United States to serve as a counterweight to Iran. But U.S. leverage is not unlimited and is diminishing as the threat from Iraq's most lethal enemy—Al Qaeda in Iraq—recedes and as the Iraqi security forces grow in size and competence. This means that U.S. leverage will have to be used for the right ends and not overplayed.
The second and equally urgent step the new U.S. administration must undertake as soon as it assumes office is to help Iraq prepare for national elections at the end of 2009 to elect a new parliament, which in turn will form a government to succeed Maliki's. The United States' main focus must be on the elections because they hold the key to the political solution. It is vital that these elections fully enfranchise the Iraqi electorate so that the resulting parliament will have the legitimacy and standing to resolve the main outstanding issues about the nature of the Iraqi state and how power and resources will be shared. It is necessary to ensure that the 4 million Iraqis who are displaced or abroad are able to vote because about half of them are Sunnis, a group currently underrepresented in the parliament. Further, the U.S. administration must strive to ensure that certain basic conditions are met in these elections. The formation of new parties and multisectarian or nonsectarian alliances should be encouraged or at least not impeded by party bosses. The United Nations and international monitors should be asked to support and observe the vote to increase confidence in the results and the legitimacy of the resulting government. To this end, U.S. troops must remain in sufficient numbers to ensure that the elections are conducted in a climate of peace and security.
While it is impossible to predict the outcome of the elections, it is highly likely that the Shiite vote will be fractured. The fissures within the Shiite electorate create the key opportunity for a variety of multisectarian and nonsectarian alliances. Many Shiites are disgusted with the incompetence, corruption, and sectarianism of the current government. The Shiite population is not a monolith, and it is not clear that a majority of the Shiites prefer an Islamist government.
The elections will open the door to the possibility of new alliances with new parties and constituencies that have entered the system in the provincial elections. That is not to say that it will be easy to form a new national government after the 2009 elections, but the first step is to achieve the most representative parliament possible. Any effort to tackle the bedrock issues with the current government is unlikely to produce a good outcome since the government has proved to be both weak and intransigent.