Two years after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, and two and a half months after that country’s historic elections, Iraq’s Parliament held its inaugural session last week. Although the legislative session was more symbolic than substantive, the symbolism was important nonetheless. The convening of the assembly allows Iraqis to begin building a government. It will be slow and sometimes sloppy, but the people of Iraq are now creating their own political system — and that process itself will pay dividends for the country.

On Jan. 30, the Iraqi people defied terrorists and overcame long-standing ethnic divisions to elect their first postwar Parliament. As expected, Shiite Muslims won a majority in the 275-member assembly: The Shiite United Iraqi Alliance claimed 140 seats and the Kurdistan Alliance came in second with 75. The Iraqi List put together by interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi won 40 seats. All together, 12 parties are represented in the assembly; 85 women won election in the ballot.

A two-thirds majority is needed to form a government. Reportedly, disagreements over security arrangements in the northern autonomous zone run by Kurds and the status of the city of Kirkuk have been the primary obstacles to a deal between the Shiites and the Kurds. Enough progress has been made to hold the inaugural parliamentary session and swear in legislators, but that is all. The session adjourned after several speeches, without electing a speaker, a president and vice president, and without selecting a date to reconvene.Still, reports that the Shiites and the Kurds have reached agreement and are now selecting a government are encouraging, as is news that the two parties are beginning negotiations with Mr. Allawi and are prepared to bring Sunni Muslims into the government as well. Sunnis make up roughly 20 percent of the Iraqi population, but they dominated during the rule of former President Saddam Hussein, a fellow Sunni. Disenfranchisement has left them embittered. Most Sunnis boycotted the January ballot, ensuring that they would not be proportionately represented in the resulting Parliament.

Accepting those results at face value is not in Iraq’s best interest. Excluding Sunnis from government will only make them more angry and more opposed to the government. At this moment in history, Iraqis must be united to overcome the many challenges they now face. The most immediate is safety and security: To drive home the threat, insurgents launched mortars as the Assembly convened.

The Parliament’s first assignment is forming a government. A prime minister has to be selected and a Cabinet then agreed upon and confirmed. Only then can it get down to the most pressing task: writing a constitution. The tentative deadline is Aug. 15, but it can be extended once. The Iraqi people will vote by Oct. 15, and the document must be ratified by a two-thirds majority of voters. If approved, another parliamentary election, this time for permanent members, will be held by Dec. 15. If rejected, another constitution must be drafted.

It is an ambitious timetable. The constitution writers have to tackle three difficult problems: the role of Islam in the state, the balance of power among its three primary ethnic communities — Shiite, Sunni and Kurd — and the relative power of the federal government in Baghdad and the provinces, in particular the Kurdish zone in the north, which has been virtually independent since the 1991 Persian Gulf War. All three are particularly thorny issues and the necessary compromises will anger winners and losers. Nevertheless, the very process of working together to reach agreement should help build the political culture of tolerance, compromise and moderation that is needed if Iraq is to have a future.

Patience is a virtue in this exercise. Progress will be very slow. Frustrations are already mounting among many Iraqis, dismayed that it has taken so long for a Parliament to even convene. Their irritation is understandable; after all, many of them risked their lives to vote and it is unseemly and inappropriate for that courage to be squandered on dividing the spoils of office.

It is time for Iraqi politicians to get down to business. They have been given a powerful mandate to build a multiethnic foundation for their country. The rest of the world must help them in this endeavor. Financial support is needed, but the first priority — as always — is security. This is not the time for governments that have contributed forces to help stabilize Iraq to contemplate withdrawal. Iraqis must assume more responsibility for their own security but “tough love” is not the answer. Iraq’s first task is writing a constitution that allows the world to justify and validate the trauma, turmoil and tragedy of the last two years.

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