Iraq's War Cabinet
Wanted: a plan to secure Baghdad.

Thursday, May 25, 2006 12:01 a.m. EDT

Iraq passed another important milestone last weekend when Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki won parliamentary approval for the bulk of his cabinet. But with the critical posts of Defense and Interior minister unfilled, the new body is a reminder of how much very hard work lies ahead.

Perhaps the most arresting fact about the new war cabinet is its lack of notable leaders. A few competent and well-known figures from Iraq's interim governments have returned. Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih and Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari stand out. But by and large sectarian political tokenism has been the order of the day, with the victorious parties in the December election filling posts with undistinguished loyalists.

Most troubling is the lack of accountability for past performance. Take Bayan Jabr, who presided for the past year over an Interior Ministry infiltrated by "death squads" that undermined Iraqi trust in the police. Mr. Jabr is at least out of that job, but he's nonetheless gotten the plum and important Finance Ministry instead.

Meanwhile, Ahmed Chalabi, who showed his competence with several portfolios during the transition government, was vetoed for the Interior post by Mr. Jabr's Sciri party. Sciri's Badr militia appears to be a big source of the problem at Interior, and Mr. Chalabi is the kind of non-sectarian leader who could have tame the militias and build a more credible force. Instead Mr. Maliki is going to run Interior himself, though a Prime Minister has many other duties and Interior needs hands-on management.

A weak cabinet is not itself an insurmountable problem, especially since many of the posts are essentially patronage jobs. But it puts all the more burden on Prime Minister Maliki, who is new to the job and has no proven leadership record. Early reports suggest he is staffing his office with party loyalists of no great experience either. His predecessor, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, only realized the importance of a strong Prime Minister's office when it was too late. Iraq may not be able to afford another year for Mr. Maliki to learn that same lesson.

The most urgent need is for leaders in both Iraq and Washington to do more to improve security in Baghdad. The White House has been right to point out that the media have missed many good news stories in Iraq, but current coverage probably understates the trauma of daily life in the capital. Iraq can survive the car bombs we hear about on the news. The real problem is more generalized lawlessness and a lack of basic services like electricity that have made normal life nasty, brutish and too often short.

Educated Iraqis are fleeing Baghdad in increasing numbers, a terrible sign for the country's democratic future if the exodus is not stopped. The new government and coalition commanders may have to think in terms of a major redeployment of U.S. and Iraqi forces, with the aim of securing Baghdad at all costs. A 30-day plan for a more visible street presence and with frequent security checkpoints would be one place to start.

All of which points out again the troubles that have arisen from the terribly slow transition to Iraqi sovereignty. The momentum of Saddam Hussein's swift fall from power was squandered as Iraqis were forced to wait more than a year and a half to vote in their first free election. Then that election was held under a system of "proportional representation" that exacerbated the very sectarian trends that are plaguing the country now.

Victory for the U.S. mission is still possible, though it is going to require a continued American political and military commitment. Thus we are glad to see that the Bush Administration is not using the timing of this new government in Iraq as an excuse to signal major troop withdrawals. If anything, the new government will need a renewed U.S. willingness to help as it tries to subdue the insurgency and restore some civil order--on which everything else hangs.