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IRAQ - Resurgence In The Shi'ite World - Part 8 - US & UK Mediation.

In a surprise trip to Baghdad with UK Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on April 2 told Iraqi leaders that time was running out to form a new government. After meeting Sunni, Shi'ite and Kurdish leaders, she said: "The Iraqi people are losing patience. What is more, your international allies want to see this done".

The aim of the two-day visit was to try to break a three-month deadlock over forming a government of national unity. But the visit came as Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Ja'fari faced renewed pressure to resign his position, with senior figures in the Shi'ite coalition which won the Dec. 15 elections for the first time publicly calling for him to stand down.

Both Washington and London have concerns about Ja'fari's desire to remain in office, with some viewing him as an obstacle to the formation of a government. The US Ambassador to Baghdad, Zalmay Khalilzad, had requested the intervention of Ms Rice and Secretary Straw as the deadlock had caused a serious escalation of the sectarian violence after the Feb. 22 bombing of a Shi'ite shrine in Samarra' (see rim3-IraqGovt-Mar13-06).

Kurdish and Sunni politicians in March called for Ja'fari to be replaced, accusing him and his Shi'ite power base of sectarianism. But US and British officials are painfully aware of the danger of being seen to impose their wishes on Iraq's population. Aside from Ja'fari, Rice and Straw saw President Jalal Talabani and Abdel-Aziz al-Hakim, leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), the largest party within the Shi'ite United Iraqi Alliance (UIA).

It was a senior member of SCIRI, Jalal ul-Deen al-Saghir, who on April 2 called on Ja'fari to resign, with Reuters quoting him as saying: "I call on Ja'afari to step down as nominee for prime minister because the candidate ought to secure a national consensus from other lists and also international acceptance". Saghir said he was speaking in a personal capacity but made clear the party's position was now against Ja'fari. "This is just the beginning and other calls will follow". The plea followed similar calls on April 1 from other UIA partners.

The same call was made on April 5 by Vice President Adel Abdel-Mahdi, the deputy leader of SCIRI whom the US and a growing number of Iraqi politicians prefer for the post of prime minister. Abdel-Mahdi, a French-educated economist described as being "less sectarian" than Ja'fari, lost his candidacy to the PM post in February elections within the UIA. Ja'fari one the February election by one vote and was backed by Muqtada al-Sadr - the young anti-US Shi'ite mullah whose private militia has been accused to revenge killings of Sunni Arabs after the Feb. 22 Samarra' bombing.

A few hours after Rice and Straw ended their visit, a Neo-Salafi suicide bomb attack near a Shi'ite mosque killed 10 worshippers. Almost 40 others were wounded in the blast as worshippers were leaving the Al-Shuruqi Mosque in the al-Sha'b neighbourhood in north-eastern Baghdad after their evening prayers.

"The Iraqi people are rightly demanding that they have a government after they braved the threats of terrorists to go to the polls and vote", Rice told a joint news conference in the fortified Green Zone, adding: "Indeed, the international partners, particularly the United States and Great Britain and others who have forces on the ground and have sacrificed here, have a deep desire and, I think, a right to expect that this process will keep moving forward. It is, after all, the political process that will disable those who wish to engage in violence against the Iraqi people".

Rice demanded the disbanding of sectarian militias, saying: "You can't have, in a democracy, various groups with arms - you have to have the state with a monopoly on power. We have sent very, very strong messages repeatedly, and not just on this visit, that one of the first that there is going to be a reining in of the militias". Both Rice and Sraw praised Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the spiritual leader for much of Iraq's Shi'ite community, for his aid in building a new country, suggesting he could help break the political deadlock.

Straw said: "Without the remarkable spiritual guidance shown by...Grand Ayatollah Sistani, this country - for all its problems it now faces - would not have in its hands the potential for a better future". Rice and Straw said foreign governments could not tell Iraqis who their next prime minister should be, but that Iraq's international supporters must see progress. The fact of their visit and the tone of their comments made clear that Ja'fari did not meet their conditions.

Rice said: "You cannot have a circumstance in which there is a political vacuum in a country like this that faces so much threat of violence. It needs to be a strong leader who's a unifying force and someone who can bring stability and meet the challenges of the Iraqi people". Straw said political talks would make no progress until the issue of who would be prime minister was settled, adding: "We do have, I think, a right to say that we've got to be able to deal with Mr. A, or Mr. B, or Mr. C. We can't deal with Mr. Nobody. And that's the problem, OK?"

Four Sunni gunmen on April 2 charged into a Shi'ite home in Baghdad's Dora district, lined up a brother, two sisters, and an uncle against a wall and shot them dead. The father, a grocery shop owner, had been killed six months earlier by gunmen in the same Shi'ite neighbourhood, one of Baghdad's most dangerous. The mother was visiting relatives when the April 2 attack occurred. Six members of a family in Basra, including a child, were gunned down in broad daylight by armed men in the southern city of Basra. Four other Iraqis, including a Sunni imam in the northern city of Kirkuk, died in attacks which occurred elsewhere in Iraq.

Reinforcing the message delivered by Ms Rice, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari warned on CNN's Late Edition on April 2, that time was running out for Iraq's political parties, saying: "We are losing a great deal of time and, unless this government is formed to be up and running definitely, I believe seriously that there will be more killing and more Iraqi blood shed in vain". Zebari said that, although Iraqi leaders had tried to settle the question of Ja'fari's candidacy for a second term, "it seems that the issue will not be resolved, and it will go [to] the parliament to be settled there".

Speaking with Rice to reporters aboard her plane on their flight to Baghdad, Straw said: "The United States has invested an astonishing amount of money in Iraq. And the UK has spent very large sums. We are committed to Iraq. But we need to see some progress".Rice was to have stayed in Blackburn, England, through April 1-2, visiting Straw in his home district in return for his visit to her childhood home, Birmingham, Alabama, last October. But at the request of Khalilzad she decided to make this trip and invite Straw to come along on her plane. Britain has over 8,000 troops in southern Iraq.

The US has been pushing for weeks to ensure that the Shi'ite majority in the new parliament offers the Sunni minority a significant role in the new government. Straw was making his third trip to Iraq this year. Rice last visited Iraq in November.

On April 1, Shi'ite politician Qassem Dawoud joined Sunnis and Kurds in calling for a Shi'ite nominee other than Ja'fari. Saghir, Hakim's deputy in the SCIRI leadership, on April 2 said his party was ready to name another candidate to replace Ja'fari. SCIRI later floated the name of Abdel-Mahdi as its candidate.

President Talabani on April 5 called for a parliament session in which members will vote for a candidate for the post of PM. Ja'fari said he will accept parliament's vote. As pressure for Ja'fari to step aside rose, Abdel-Mehdi gave a clear signal he was waiting to take the country's reins in his hands, saying: "I was a candidate for it, so...I am working for it". But this will not end the intra-Shi'ite split.

The split portends a clash, possibly violent, between the UIA's two biggest groups - Hakim's SCIRI and the Sadriststs who are Ja'fari's most powerful backers. Both have large militia forces. SCIRI's militia arm, Badr, controls the Ministry of Interior. Sadr's force, Jaysh al-Mahdi, has been reinforced with new weapons. There are Sadrists in the ministry's security forces as well.

These two groups are long-time rivals, and both have backing from Iran. But SCIRI is much closer to Iran's Shi'ite theocracy, whereas Sadr is against Iranian interference in Iraqi affairs. Sadr is an Arab nationalist. Whereas Hakim wants a federal system and autonomy in the Shi'ite south, Sadr wants a strong central government and has called for the new constitution to be amended so that federalism is only limited to the Kurdish area in the north. Jaysh al-Mahdi and Badr militias fought street battles last August throughout Baghdad and cities in the south. The new eruption in the Shi'ite ranks could redraw Iraq's political alliances, if some Shi'ite politicians leave the UIA amid the feuding to side with other groups in parliament. That would weaken the religious Shi'ites, and it is one of the great fears of Sistani.

Since cobbling together the fragile UIA in late 2004, Sistani and his aides had been working hard to keep it together to ensure that the religious Shi'ites remain unified enough to assume power through elections. But this time, Sistani is not taking sides in the dispute over Ja'fari, although his Hawza (Shi'ite religious authority) in Najaf generally favours Hakim over the young Sadr.

Ja'fari heads one of several factions of Hizb al-Da'wa al-Islamiya, co-founded in the 1960s by Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Baqer al-Sadr who was executed in 1980 by Saddam's Ba'thist dictatorship. Leadership of this movement was later assumed by his younger brother Muhammad Sadeq al-Sadr, the father of Muqtada, who was said to be executed in 1999. But there have been rumours that the latter Sadr was killed by people from Hakim's camp, and that Hakim's elder brother, Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Baqer al-Hakim, was killed in August 2003 by people from the Sadrists.

Yet there were claims that Hakim and many Shi'ites were killed by Neo-Salafi jihadis in a suicide bombing at the entrance to Imam Ali Shrine in Najaf.

At times, Rice's message was emotional: "I told them that a lot of treasure, a lot of human treasure, has been put on the line to give Iraq the chance to have a democratic future". At least 2,335 US troops have died in Iraq in the last three years. In the evening on April 2, Rice said she carried "a very direct message" to all of Iraqi leaders, and they responded favourably. Asked whether she suggested to Ja'fari to drop out of the running for PM, she said "the message to all parties" was that they had to form a government quickly.

In the previous week, Hakim had fired the opening salvo to unseat Ja'fari. He had his aides tell reporters that Ambassador Khalilzad had informed Hakim that President George W. Bush would prefer another candidate. Rice and Straw met with Ja'fari at his residence, a Saddam-era palace with an artificial lake inside the heavily fortified Green Zone. Rice appeared tense, her smile forced, as she posed for photos with Ja'fari - a clear contrast to her cheerful mood with other leaders. Ja'fari sat stiffly beside her.

That Rice and Straw spent the night in Baghdad - a rarity for a visiting American official, particularly since an insurgent rocket attack on the al-Rashid hotel while Deputy Secretary of Defence Paul Wolfowitz was staying there in 2003. The decision to stay overnight was intended as a political statement. Last month, a senior official noted concern within the Bush administration that it seemed hypocritical for senior officials to assert that progress was being made in Iraq while refusing to spend more than a few hours in Baghdad at a time.
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Publication:APS Diplomat Redrawing the Islamic Map
Geographic Code:7IRAQ
Date:Apr 10, 2006
Previous Article:IRAQ - Rumsfeld Says Iraqis Will Handle Any Civil War.
Next Article:IRAQ - A Bloodier War.

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