BAGHDAD - Now that the security situation has improved in Baghdad, everyone here is wondering if the dismal political situation can improve, too.

The goal of the U.S. military "surge" was to create a more secure atmosphere that would enable Iraqi political leaders to figure out how to reconcile. Indeed, a political "surge" is badly needed. It is the ticket to creating a viable Iraqi army, and to stabilizing the country. That, in turn, is the key to drawing down U.S. troops.

After two weeks in Iraq, I can report that the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is as dysfunctional as ever, the prime minister's staff a collection of incompetents from his Shiite Dawa Party who are criticized by many in his own government.

"Things have changed a lot, but the changes need to be sustained," I was told by the savvy Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari. "If the government doesn't move faster, those gains could evaporate."

And yet, despite the failure of the Maliki government to deliver vital legislation, or make anything function, things are changing politically in Iraq.

The changes are hard to see clearly because the country is still going through an ugly period of chaos and confusion, with Shiite militias battling each other in the south, and intra-Shiite violence in Baghdad. Fighting continues between Sunni tribal leaders and al-Qaeda in parts of the country. And the Maliki government has failed so far to pass benchmark laws that had been viewed as signs of whether sects could reconcile.

But the sharp decline in sectarian killing has changed the way Iraqis look at politics and their post-Saddam leaders. "The less there is of sectarian killing, the more people will focus on their interests," I was told by Sheikh Humam Hammoudi, an astute leader of one of the largest Shiite political parties, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI).

"We are in a transitional phase, from competition over identity to a competition over interests," the sheikh continued.

Let me explain what that means.

In the violent chaos of the post-Saddam era, even secular Iraqis turned to political groups that represented their sect as a form of protection. Long-oppressed Shiites, a numerical majority, were determined to gain the power they believed they had long been denied. Sunnis fought back to retain their old standing. Kurds focused on building their quasi-state in the north.

Now the violence has ebbed. "We have avoided a major sectarian war that could have spread," Zebari said. "It is not over, but it has died down. The overall atmosphere has changed."

Now people have the breathing room to assess their sectarian parties that have failed to deliver services or safety while indulging in astounding levels of corruption. The judgments I heard from every Iraqi I spoke with were unremittingly harsh. (Many secular Iraqis, even those who hated Saddam Hussein, talk wistfully of Iraq's need for a strongman.)

Even the radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has had to pay attention to popular dissatisfaction with the shakedowns and murders carried out by thugs in his Mahdi Army militia. He has dispersed hit men to try to eliminate some of the more egregious violators in Baghdad neighborhoods. I spoke to one, a hard-faced, middle-aged tough named Abu Ali, who was limping from a gunshot wound to the leg; he told me his men had killed 17 "criminals" in Baghdad's Hurriyah district on Sadr's orders. The Shiite mafiosi are cleaning house.

Iraq's Shiite religious leaders, too, are weighing in on the government's failures. The leading Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, sent word through his spokesmen of his dissatisfaction with the fact that much of the parliament had decamped to Saudi Arabia for the Muslim pilgrimage at government expense. This at a time when crucial laws on oil and provincial elections are languishing in committees. Sistani said that parliamentarians would get no religious credit for the hajj because they had abandoned their duty.

Politicians in Baghdad are paying attention; many factions are discussing the possibility of a parliamentary vote of no confidence in Maliki in the next months. The Kurdish bloc has sent him a warning letter demanding that he reform his government so it functions, or risk losing its support.

Meantime, new segments of society are trying to get into the political system, instead of aiming to seize power through force. New Sunni tribal militias in Anbar province, known as the Anbar Awakening, that drove out al-Qaeda in Iraq, are now starting to form political parties that are less sectarian in nature than the existing Sunni parties. The Awakening may draw substantial votes away from those existing parties because it has improved people's lives on the ground.

The Shiite ISCI is in discussions about allying with these nascent Anbar tribal parties. Sheikh Hammoudi said he could envision an alliance between Shiite and new Sunni parties that would run as a cross-sectarian bloc in the next elections. This could be the first step toward modifying the U.S.-devised electoral system that promoted parties based on sect - and contributed to the Shiite-Sunni divide.

All this political ferment, however, signifies a process in motion. There is no guarantee that these many moving pieces will settle into a pattern that provides a functional government - or a united Iraqi military that can take over from U.S. troops. Inexperienced political players could turn back to the gun.

And yet, in this flurry of motion lies possibility. Some Iraqi politicians do understand the need for change and the need to figure out how to make government work. Shiite Vice President Adel Abdul-Mahdi told me, "If we have better security, it should mean that the political process is getting better. There is a difference between the government crisis and the political process, where we are gaining momentum."

Better security permits Iraqis to judge their government on what it delivers, rather than whether it protects their sect. Such gains may not equal reconciliation, but they are a start to getting Iraq past the sectarian divide.

Contact columnist Trudy Rubin at 215-854-5823 or trubin@phillynews.com.

Read her recent work at http://go.philly.com/trudyrubin.