The Turning Point?
When historians look back at the modern history of Iraq, they will probably see Thursday, June 8, 2006, as the turning point.
Al-Zarqawi’s extermination was not the only event of the day. Prime Minister al-Maliki at last secured majority approval of his candidates for the two most contentious ministerial posts, defense and interior. With that single, vital step, he made a sovereign, self-governing Iraq a reality. For the first time in over three decades, Iraq has a complete government-—a Prime Minister, a Parliament, and a full set of ministers-—that reflects the will of the Iraqi people. Not only that: al-Maliki’s last, crucial appointments were good ones.
Any one of these events would have been good news. Together, they are cause for hoping that the ambitious goal of our foreign policy can be achieved. We may yet see a stable, democratic, and prosperous Iraq that does not sponsor international terrorism.
The slaughter of innocents continues. That’s why so many commentators were cautious. But al-Zarqawi is dead. Equally monstrous underlings may survive him, but none has his stature and notoriety. Now and for the immediate future a single figure bestrides the stage of Iraq: al-Maliki. All eyes are on him, and the war is his to win or lose.
The evidence suggests that al-Maliki knows how to win. Just a short time ago, he promised to use an “iron fist” to crush perpetrators of ethnic violence, including Shiite militias. Without ministers of defense and interior acceptable to all three ethnic groups, that promise seemed an empty threat. Now, with Zarqawi dead and two tough, practical ministers presiding over the Iraqi military and police, no one can ignore it.
Like al-Maliki himself, the new ministers of defense and interior are no-nonsense, practical men. The defense minister is a former general in Saddam’s army, a Sunni, who resigned over the invasion of Kuwait.
Think about that. This guy resigned from a regime in which disagreeing with Saddam in a cabinet meeting could get your brains blown out on the spot. No one is going to intimidate him. Courage and integrity are no doubt the reasons why he, a Sunni, could command enough votes from Shia and Kurds to receive the approval that has eluded al-Maliki for months.
The new interior ministry is an engineer, a man whose training necessarily puts practical consequences over ideology. We don’t yet know the extent of his military or police experience, but most commentators have praised his appointment as a good choice. The bare fact that he could command approval from the Iraqi Parliament, in a time so rife with suspicion and fear, speaks volumes.
If the last few months have been discouraging and terrifying to us Americans, think how they tormented Iraqis. Iraqis looked into the abyss. They saw the future that Zarqawi promised: death, destruction and tyranny. Tribal sheiks turned against him, and some were assassinated. Eventually, even those close to him began to turn on him. An informer set him up, and now he is dead.
As for Iraqi soldiers and police, they signed up in droves over the past year or so, despite the risk of being assassinated before ever completing their training. They hardly risked their lives for the opportunity to slaughter rival ethnic groups. They, too, saw the abyss, and many gave their lives to avoid it.
Iraqis, after all, are human. They yearn for peace and security. The man who symbolized hatred, death and destruction has met his well-deserved end. Now Iraq has a duly elected government, headed by smart, tough, practical, media-savvy men with courage and integrity.
The road ahead will not be easy. But there appear to be as many Iraqis willing to risk their lives to stop the killing as to promote it. The courageous souls include sheikhs, Iraqi army and police recruits, and the man who turned Zarqawi in.
This Thursday gave them three victories: Zarqawi’s death, a complete sovereign government, and good choices for two key ministries. The darkest hour is often just before dawn. As al-Maliki's iron fist descends on purveyors of ethnic mayhem, aided by countless Iraqis who love life more than revenge and death, the sun will begin to rise again over Iraq.