That small triumph passed largely unnoticed, given the cartoon conflagrations throughout the Islamic world. And it's possible that a peaceful Ashura was just a fluke; there was plenty of violence elsewhere in Iraq last week. Insurgent attacksabout 70 a dayare significantly higher than they were last year. But there are curious patterns to the violence, which may have something to do with the absence of carnage in Karbala. Last summer al-Zarqawi apparently received a letterlater released by the U.S. governmentfrom the al-Qaeda leadership ordering him to stop bombing Islamic innocents. Recently al-Zarqawi's terrorists seem to have found a new preoccupation: assassinating Sunni leaders who are planning to participate in the new Iraqi government. They killed prominent Sunnis in Kirkuk and Fallujah last week. Those may be signs of desperation, signs that al-Zarqawi fears that an all-inclusive deal is possible, bringing Sunnis more prominently into the new Iraqi government and defanging the insurgency.
The man quietly brokering that deal is Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, and it is now crunch time. A new Iraqi government will be formed in the next month or so. There will be a simple measure of Khalilzad's success: How much power, beyond their one-fifth minority status, will the Sunnis be given? At the heart of the negotiations will be a bright-line test: Who will control the Interior Ministry, now in the hands of Shi'ite religious extremists with close ties to Iran, who have murdered and tortured thousands of Sunnis? Even the Shi'ite leadershipin the person of Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (sciri)has acknowledged the excesses. "We call upon our faithful security forces," al-Hakim said last week, "to continue strongly confronting terrorists but with more consideration to human rights."
Keep an eye on sciri during the coming weeks. "[It's] a problem," says a senior diplomat from one of Iraq's neighboring countries. "They want as much power as they can get, which is understandablebut potentially disastrous ... We believe Khalilzad is the best person you have sent to Iraq. He speaks to all sides and doesn't have an ideological agenda. But there may come a time when Khalilzad will need support, when worldwide pressure on the Shi'ite will be necessary."
The Bush Administration has not been known for its ability to organize global coalitionsbut an opportunity exists now to do what wasn't done before the invasion of Iraq, to bring "Old Europe" back on board to press for the right kind of deal in Iraq. Indeed, the cartoon controversy seems a sign that attitudes toward Islamic extremism are hardening in Europe. Publications in Italy, Germany, France and Norway expressed solidarity with Denmark by reprinting cartoons of the Prophet. Conservative and populist anti-immigrant political parties are on the rise throughout the Continent. "Anti-American feelings have really diminished," Senator John McCain told me last week after returning from meetings with European leaders. "The Europeans have their own problems now. And I think the situation in Iran has led them to understand the importance of a stable Iraq."
The threat of a resurgent Iran, with its nuclear ambitions and its crude new President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has concentrated the minds of both Western diplomats and Middle Eastern Sunni governments. Suddenly the prospect of a permanent Iraqi government dominated by Iran-friendly religious Shi'ites seems a more pressing problem. "If the negotiations in Iraq do not yield a government acceptable to Sunnis," the Middle Eastern diplomat told me, "we could be looking at a civil war that becomes a regional conflict."
Last fall when the negotiations over the new Iraqi constitution almost collapsed because of Shi'ite intransigence, the U.N. issued a vehement objection, and remarkably, the Shi'ites compromised. The stakes are higher now, and it will take more than U.N. pressure to win Shi'ite concessions. In the end, it may take a high-profile presidential or Condoleezza Rice-led diplomatic campaignlike Henry Kissinger's in the Middle East or Richard Holbrooke's in Bosniato force a deal that could salvage George W. Bush's legacy in the desert.