THE NEXT FEW MONTHS….After months of haggling, Iraqi leaders finally formed a government today. However, they were forced to leave three important ministries unfilled ? all related to oversight of security forces ? because Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds couldn’t agree on who to appoint.

That’s obviously troubling, but I have a feeling that an even bigger problem was buried in a single paragraph inside this morning’s New York Times account:

The incident underscored how difficult it could be for the new government to act with any degree of decisiveness. And it presages the bitter conflicts that lie ahead, especially over amendments to the Constitution, which Sunni leaders are insisting on as a condition for remaining in the democratic process.

Last October, in a desperate attempt to get Sunni support for the referendum on the proposed Iraqi constitution, Shiite leaders agreed to form a special committee to consider amendments to the constitution within four months of forming a government. That was mostly a fig leaf, since no one agreed to actually change the constitution, but it was enough to allow the Sunni bloc to hold out hope that they’d eventually get some of the concessions they were after.

But that’s been on hold ever since the December parliamentary elections because no government had been formed. Now, though, the clock is ticking. With a government in place, Iraq’s leadership is obligated to form the promised committee and begin considering constitutional changes.

So what’s going to happen? The leader of Iraq’s biggest Shiite party pretty much repudiated the deal months ago, and the most likely outcome seems to be either no changes or else mere cosmetic changes. And then the Sunnis will have to decide: do they decide to live with the constitution they hated back in October, or do they pull out of the government when the constitutional committee fails to deliver on any substantive changes?

For once, Thomas Friedman might be right if he predicts that the next few months really are critical. Tick, tick, tick.

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