The latest Iraqi elections were held almost three months ago but a national government has yet to form. After intense negotiations between the major political blocs in Iraq, the National Assembly will convene this week.

Given the rise in sectarian violence, it is more important than ever that Iraq produces a national unity government that will be a stabilizing force on the country- it may take some time and patience but it can be done.

It has only been three years since Iraq was liberated from one of the most brutal regimes known to mankind. Despite naysayers who claimed that Iraqis were not “ready” for democracy, Iraqis stepped up to the challenge and defied those who said it was impossible- Iraqis have held two free and fair national elections and ratified a permanent constitution.

Few, if any, countries in modern times have been able to transform their political systems so dramatically in such a short amount of time. What is even more remarkable is that Iraqis have accomplished so much despite the security problems that continue to plague their everyday life.

Despite the accomplishments of the Iraqis, massive challenges still lie ahead. A delicate balance is required between addressing the pressing need to stop the sectarian violence and the long-term need to create viable political solutions that cut across sectarian and ethnic lines.

The making of a stable, lasting political system that respects the rule of law can take years, even centuries to build. The creation of strong democratic institutions, the formulation of a balanced approach to federalism, the division of mineral wealth as well as the institution of legal reform are all tasks that will fall on the shoulders of Iraq’s first permanent four year government.

And perhaps most importantly, a strong unified central government is necessary for nurturing a national army that can take on the huge burden of securing the country. That is why it is incumbent for Iraqis to form a national unity government that will not devolve into a weak factionalized government unable to function in an atmosphere of internal distrust and intense outside pressures.

So why has it taken the government so long to form?? There are many reasons; foremost is the question of who will be the next prime minister. In February, the Shiite bloc–which controls 128 out of 275 seats in the parliament but short of a majority to form a government–nominated incumbent Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, by a slim vote over incumbent Vice President Adel Abdul Mahdi. The Kurds, who came in second in the elections with 53 seats, rejected al-Jaafari?s nomination and allied themselves with both Sunnis and Mr. Ayad Allawi?s secular party, who gained 44 and 25 seats, respectively, in the national elections. The Kurd- Sunni-Allawi alliance, however, does not have enough seats to form a majority in the National Assembly.

And so the impasse began.

However, after the bombing of the revered Al-Askari Shiite shrine in Samarra, Iraqi leaders have publicly recognized that the formation of a new national unity government is necessary to quell the tide of sectarian violence.? U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad has been working tirelessly with those leaders to help form coalitions that will shore up safeguards that will keep Iraq from sliding into civil war.

There is no guarantee on how long it will take–maybe weeks or months–for the parliament to choose the president, prime minister and cabinet ministers and for national policies implemented. But it is important that all the major Iraqi factions work together to put together a government that has the institutional capacity to effectuate the security, infrastructure and policy change that Iraq so desperately needs.

The durability of a democratic, unified government in Iraq has broad implications for Iraq’s future, for regional stability, and for American national security, so whatever effort and patience it takes to get it right is well worth the effort.

Despite myopic concentration on the here and now of sectarian violence by some, most Iraqis want cooperation among their leaders, national unity, basic guarantees of human rights and functioning institutions. The new government, elected by the people in free elections, will owe its constituencies no less.

A. Yasmine Rassam is the Director of International Issues for the Independent Women’s Forum