Events in Iraq in the last couple of months suggest the political process is gradually becoming more stable -- even if many Iraqis find it difficult to believe that the situation really is improving at last.
The most important development was the signing of a security pact with Washington.
For months, the debate in Iraq over the pact was extraordinarily rancorous. Both Sunni groups and loyalists of radical Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr threatened repeatedly to take to the streets. They accused Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki -- in no uncertain terms -- of seeking to extend the U.S. occupation forever.
Today, following the agreement that all U.S. troops will withdraw over the next three years, those broadsides may seem exaggerated. But just two years ago, when the country was engulfed in sectarian-based fighting that threatened to escalate into civil war, such passions extinguished thousands of lives.
So, no wonder some Iraqis were amazed that the security debate didn't spill over into the streets, but was ultimately solved by due parliamentary process, although with much shouting. In the end, only 30 legislators loyal to al-Sadr, plus several Sunni lawmakers, voted "no." The majority of legislators -- including most of the Sunnis -- voted "yes." The draft accord passed, and the Presidency Council signed it into law last week.
As in any parliamentary process, this one was accompanied by a lot of backroom dealing. The Sunni community, which is underrepresented in parliament but hopes to play a bigger role following next year's elections, forced the Shi'ite-dominated government to make tough concessions as the price of their support.
One Sunni condition for support was to finally put an end to de-Ba'athification, which has barred hundreds of thousands of former members of Saddam Hussein's party -- most of them Sunni -- from public and military positions.
Another was implementing existing amnesty laws to release from prison detainees who have been held for months or years on suspicion of insurgency, but have not been charged. Again, most of these are Sunnis.
But in addition to the security pact there are other signs, too, that the parliamentary process is working better.
Again after months of debate, the parliament agreed on a law which clears the way for elections in most of Iraq's provinces in January. They will be the first elections in the country in four years, and could reset the local balance of power in many areas.
Is passing that law -- even months later than originally planned -- really so remarkable? Yes, when one remembers the fighting that paralyzed the southern city of Al-Basrah in March this year. That shoot-out was also a way of redistributing power locally, with army units made up of loyalists of the two mainstream Shi'ite religious parties (the Islamic Supreme Council in Iraq and Al-Da'wah) battling the Sadrists.
Return To Rule Of Law?
The biggest question now is how much further Iraq's ruling political factions can move beyond shoot-outs and backroom dealing toward a parliamentary democracy committed to the rule of law.
To that end, Iraqis are watching with great interest a small drama currently playing out around the Constitutional Court. Originally created by the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) after U.S. troops toppled Hussein, the court has long been inactive. But recently some politicians have begun taking disputes to it in the hope of arbitration.
The court's judges were appointed by the CPA from a list of judges and legal experts who were -- and are -- widely considered to be free of factional allegiances. They thus constitute a rare group of nonaligned professionals capable of resolving disputes in accordance with the constitution, a document whose provisions are widely disputed between the ruling parties themselves.
The Constitutional Court showed its spirit earlier this month when it arbitrated the case of a legislator who had been stripped of his parliamentary immunity by his colleagues.
The legislator, Mithal al-Alusi, is a liberal secularist and the only member of his tiny Iraqi Nation Party in the legislature. The other deputies stripped him of his immunity after he returned from a trip to Israel to attend a conference on terrorism. Their rationale for doing so was that Iraq is still technically at war with Israel, as it has been since the Hussein era.
Al-Alusi's defense council appealed to the Constitutional Court and the judges reinstated him in the Council of Representatives. The judges could act fearlessly because they serve open-ended terms and can be removed from their positions only by a two-thirds majority vote -- which would be almost impossible to achieve in the fractious parliament.
At the same time, President Jalal Talabani has begun proposing that some of the country's toughest disputes be referred to the Constitutional Court in the hope of breaking political deadlocks. So far, none of the attempts has succeeded, but they have raised public awareness of the court's role and its possibilities.
Talabani has urged that the court should arbitrate such disputes as that over who has jurisdiction over Iraq's oil reserves. The provisions in the constitution -- which says existing oil reserves belong to the central government, while newly discovered ones fall under the competence of regional governments -- are hotly disputed. When the Kurdish regional government awards a contract to explore for oil, the central government's Oil Ministry rejects that contract as unconstitutional.
A ruling from the court would have enormous impact. It could help expedite passage of the badly needed and constantly postponed hydrocarbons law, which is currently mired down in exactly the same dispute over who has the right to develop oil resources, and where. And it could help clarify for other Iraqi regions, like the oil-rich Al-Basrah area, whether they want to push for autonomy on the Kurdish model -- something some Shi'ite politicians often debate.
But the political process does not yet seem ready to accommodate a fully empowered Constitutional Court. In the case of who controls oil resources, the Oil Ministry has never publicly reacted to the president's appeal for a Constitutional Court ruling, and the rest of the government has kept equally quiet.
That seems to indicate that, for the foreseeable future, at least, Iraq's politicians remain determined to resolve their disputes through tests of their own strength.
The coming months, with provincial elections in January 2009 followed by national elections in December, offer plenty of opportunities to continue doing that peacefully in parliament. One can only hope that at some point the politicians will start empowering the country's other institutions to help them reach consensus on the way forward.
Faris Omar is a journalist with RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL