If Americans are bored by the pre-packaged and timed to the minute schedules of this summer's Democratic and Republican political conventions they can follow the proceedings of the National Conference in Baghdad, scheduled to begin on Sunday.
The National Conference provides for participation by Iraq's various political, ethnic, tribal and religious constituencies and it will most certainly not culminate in a balloon drop.
If Iraq is to become a democracy – still a very big if – the country's budding democratic politicians will have to reach a consensus on rules to follow for national elections planned for January. The United Nations, which this week extended for another year its mandate "to play a leading role" in Iraq's political transition will send a small team of political advisers to the National Conference.
State Department spokesman Adam Ereli called the upcoming gathering "an important milestone on the path to a fully representative democracy in Iraq." And so it will be if that path ultimately leads in the direction being encouraged by the Bush administration.
Even as work goes on to hammer out the political structures a stable Iraq (put aside for now a democratic state) will need to function once again in the community of nations the battle to gain stability on security-related issues is very much in the balance.
A daily security report put out by the State Department offers more than a glimpse at the continuing problems being faced not only by U.S. military and other coalition forces, but also by civilian contractors and others involved in the reconstruction efforts in Iraq.
Reported incidents for one day in early August note at least 100 incidents —attacks, improvised explosive devices (IEDs), rocket propelled grenades (RPGs) being used against coalition forces.
That does not include roads that are not secure enough to allow private contractors and workers from non-governmental organizations to fan out and do their work. The security report cautions that "Travel through the South should be limited to mission-critical moves…"
When Secretary of State Colin Powell made a quick stop in Baghdad in late July, he and his traveling party were taken to the newly reopened American embassy inside the Green Zone by helicopter because the road to the airport is not secure. There are no motorcades with appreciative Iraqis lining the streets of the Iraqi capital to offer thanks for being delivered from the brutal hands of Saddam Hussein.
Nor are many major highways in Iraq completely open and safe for travel - including the road West to Jordan and the main highway North to Turkey. Until these routes are open and can be traveled without fear of being attacked or kidnapped it will continue to be a problem to move food, building supplies and other materials needed for the reconstruction effort.
Then there's the battle for Najaf and the opposition being openly led by Sheikh Moqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi army, a well-armed militia led by the Shiite cleric. The U.S. military is trying to root the Mahdi army from the positions its taken inside one of Islam's holiest shrines, the Mosque of Iman Ali. Here, the Americans have the forces able to do it, but Mr. Allawi and his new government are trying to find a way to negotiate a settlement with Sadr.
Powell said, "We want an end to this kind of outlaw activity." Iraqi government ministers this week held a news conference to encourage a settlement and the State Department's Adam Ereli says "it was very clear that they ( the Iraqi government ministers) view these militias as challenging the authority of the government. The government of Iraq has very strong views about the importance of asserting its authority over the entire country, including in Najaf."
And there you have it. Signs of stability on the one hand punctuated by outbursts of instability on the other. How much or how little of Iraq does the new government control? How much influence does the U.S. now exert? Will the center hold?
By Charles Wolfson