U.S. strategists have long been torn about which of the factions in Iraq represents our most natural ally. We have given protection to the Kurds since the end of Operation Desert Storm, making northern Iraq a de facto Kurdistan. We take Sunni rule to be, well, the rule throughout Arab states, and getting Iraq’s Sunnis to recognize the legitimacy of the new government inn Baghdad is essential to stabilizing the country. But Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad got it backwards yesterday when, commenting on fighting between Shi’a militias and tribal gangs in the southern city of Basra, he said Sunnis represent the long-term "strategic problem" and Shi’a militias represent simply an immediate "tactical problem."
Other than an American withdrawal, the one event that could doom Iraq’s chances to build a real democracy would be a crack-up of the moderate Shi’a coalition that is leading the way forward in Iraq. This "Shi’a center," represented by Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani, has been a remarkably constant strategic partner. Ambassador Khalilzad, himself an indispensable element for progress in Iraq, needs to keep that in mind.