For some better news this week, turn the channel to Iraq. The Parliament in Baghdad just undid the biggest political knot in the country. Wednesday’s deal to hold provincial elections opens the way for former insurgents and their supporters, mainly Sunni Arabs, to join the democratic process in Iraq. That in turn should help consolidate the stunning security gains of the past year.We used to hear from Joe Biden, the Pentagon and others on both sides of the aisle in Washington that only political reconciliation and a U.S. force pullout could stem the violence. They got it backwards. The “surge” and General David Petraeus’s new counterinsurgency strategy, in a matter of months, turned or neutralized Sunni and Shiite militias and all but defeated al Qaeda in Iraq. Only now that it’s calmer do Iraqis feel secure enough to make political progress.Under the compromise, elections are to be held by January in 14 provinces. Expect Sunnis to win a large chunk of seats in Anbar, Diyala and other regions; most Sunnis sat out the previous polls in 2005 and won’t make that mistake again. The notable exception is Tamim, home to the oil-rich city of Kirkuk disputed by Kurds and Sunnis. Iraqi parliamentarians agreed to kick this problem down the road. Elections there will be put off into the spring once disputes over voter rolls and other questions are resolved. This was the necessary compromise to break the deadlock in Baghdad.Less noticed but also critical is the manner of voting. In the coming provincial elections, Iraqis will choose from a slate of candidates nominated by political parties. Three years ago, they got to vote only for a “closed slate” of parties without knowing which particular politician would end up representing them in the regional or national assemblies.The change to a so-called open slate is a step forward. It makes politicians more directly accountable to their constituents and reduces the power of party bosses. The national elections, which are expected by 2010 but were also held up by the dispute over the provincial vote, are expected to be open slate, as well.Unfortunately Iraq remains stuck with “proportional representation,” a 2005 gift from U.N. special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi that helped exacerbate sectarian tensions and bring weak coalition governments. Under this system, Iraqis don’t vote for individual candidates in set constituencies. Instead they choose among party slates that are then awarded a share of seats based on their showing. This gives a strong incentive for Iraq to have only ethnic-based parties.Iraqi party bosses are attached to this system, and fought behind the scenes even against an open slate. No surprise there: What politician wants to risk losing power? A move from proportional representation to constituency voting would be hard and time consuming. A U.S. official in Baghdad tells us that Washington “won’t take a position” on a preferable system for Iraq. Maybe it should. A constitutional reform that further blunts sectarianism in politics and strengthens this young democracy would seem to be in the American — and Iraqi — interest.For all the remarkable progress, the war in Iraq isn’t over. An ambush on Iraqi police in the volatile Diyala province, also Wednesday, left 35 policemen dead. Whoever wins the White House next year would imperil the recent gains by drawing down American forces before Iraq holds provincial and national elections. They’re needed to ensure security and guard against sectarian backsliding. As importantly, the U.S. is a trusted neutral observer whose robust presence will reassure various Iraqi communities that the elections are fair.The election compromise is a major breakthrough and shows that political reconciliation is happening in Iraq. It is also further proof that the sacrifice of American soldiers has not been in vain.
This doesn’t happen very often. With all the bad economic news, if you want to cheer up, just look at the news from Iraq. Obama and Biden keep whining that the military victory in Iraq is not a full victory because the political reconciliation did not follow the military victory. Earlier this week there was a political compromise that would allow many of the former insurgents rejoin the political process. Another victory for America: