PRAGUE — Last weekend’s announcement that Iraqi lawmakers have finally formed a unity government is welcome news, both for Iraq and for President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair. The American and British governments, increasingly unpopular at home, desperately needed some tangible evidence of progress to assuage their domestic critics and to begin to speak openly of an exit strategy. But Iraq’s greatest challenges lie ahead. If Bush and Blair declare victory before the real battles have begun, they will undermine the very process to which both have committed so much at such great cost.

Bush waited weeks for a positive development that would allow him to suggest he can reduce troop levels in Iraq from 133,000 to 100,000 by the end of 2006. Blair, still stung by his Labour Party’s defeat in local elections in early May, also welcomed the good news from Iraq. During a triumphal surprise visit to Baghdad on May 22, he said he expected Iraqi forces to take responsibility for “territorial security” in much of the country by the end of the year. “It is the violence that keeps us here,” he said. “It is the peace that allows us to go.”

The optimism is premature. The formation of a unity government is only the first of many hurdles Iraq’s new government must clear if it is to build a durable peace. Its first task will be to remove those provisions of Iraq’s constitution that pit Iraq’s Sunni, Shiites and Kurds against one another. Under current Iraqi law, the parliamentary committee charged with making these constitutional changes has four months to complete its task. The four-month clock began ticking on May 3, following the first meeting of Iraq’s new parliament.

The changes are badly needed. The committee must enact a new hydrocarbon law that guarantees each of Iraq’s factions a fair share of the country’s oil wealth, which accounts for 97 percent of total export revenue. Under the current constitution, local governments have the right to exploit (and profit directly from) oil extracted from new sites beneath their territory, while only a share of the income from existing sites must go to Iraq’s central government.

On May 15, two small independent energy companies (Turkey’s Genel Enerji and Canada’s Addax Petroleum) became the latest foreign firms to begin drilling in Kurdish-controlled territory under an agreement with the regional government. Kurdish politicians within the new parliament have good reason to protect these lucrative deals as debate begins over constitutional changes.

But the central government will need a large share of that income if it is to finance the construction of new institutions of governance, invest in critical infrastructure, undertake onerous reforms aimed at economic liberalization and provide the resource-poor (and already restive) Sunnis of central Iraq with a greater share of the country’s wealth.

The constitution must also be amended to reverse the worst effects of a de-Ba’athification process that aimed to dismantle the vestiges of Saddam Hussein’s regime. In practice, de-Ba’athification has excluded thousands of Iraqis — most of them Sunnis who joined the party during the Hussein era only to secure good jobs — from the country’s political and economic life.

Finally, the Iraqi government must begin dismantling the militia groups that still outgun the fledgling Iraqi Army, and it must defeat the largely Sunni-led insurgency. Each of these tasks is formidable. If Bush and Blair prematurely withdraw large numbers of the troops that support Iraqi stability, the country’s new government would have little chance of success.

There is some reason for optimism that efforts to stem the tide of violence can succeed. Media reports of Iraqi bloodshed focus overwhelmingly on Baghdad — where the large majority of foreign journalists are based — creating the impression that the desperate security situation there is representative of the country as a whole. But in the Kurdish-controlled areas of the north and Shiite-dominated provinces in the south, levels of crime and deadly violence compare favorably with those in many cities in the United States.

But attacks in Iraq’s “Sunni triangle” (and Baghdad in particular) occur at a rate rivaling those in Chechnya and the Niger Delta. Since Sunni militants destroyed the Shiite Askariya mosque in February, hundreds of Iraqis have been killed in a series of tit-for-tat sectarian attacks. Tens of thousands have fled from mixed Sunni-Shiite cities to safer havens in ethnically homogenous enclaves that are effectively controlled by Sunni and Shiite militias. Only the presence of foreign troops slows the further Balkanization of the country’s already fractious politics.

That’s why the temptation for Bush and Blair to limit further political damage at home by prematurely declaring victory in Iraq is so dangerous. If they use the good news to begin withdrawing significant numbers of the foreign troops who bolster Iraq’s stability at a crucial and vulnerable moment, they will have undermined the project to which both have devoted so much political capital. And they will leave the new Iraqi government at the mercy of forces that would eventually pull the country apart.

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