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Iraq - SCIRI Shi'ites Think Costs Of A National Unity Govt. May Not Be Worth It.

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BAGHDAD - Three conditions set by the leading party in the main Shi'ite coalition, the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA), have made it extremely difficult for the winners of the parliamentary elections held on Dec. 15 to form a national unity government. One alternative is a coalition of the willing - a government to represent potential defectors from the UIA, the Kurdish coalition, and Sunni Arabs who will take federalism out of the constitution. The three conditions, set by the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) are: federalism, de-Ba'thification and denouncing the Sunni insurgency as "terrorism". The US Ambassador in Baghdad, Zalmay Khalilzad, is still hoping there will be a national unity government.

This will be Iraq's first freely elected four-year government. Whom the winning factions will tap as partners in a government or exclude will affect stability in Iraq for years to come.

There is no preordained outcome for a deal involving the three main communities: the Shi'ites, the Kurds and the Sunnis. They are all saying they are willing to explore it. SCIRI Shi'ites are insisting that the election results dictate the distribution of the spoils, meaning they should be given the majority of the cabinet posts.

Yet all of the politicians are touting national unity and the need for Sunni Arab participation in the government. It is widely believed to be a necessary step towards taking the steam out of a relentless Sunni insurgency. But these politicians, including SCIRI Shi'ite and Sunni religious figures, have very different ideas of what national unity and Sunni participation actually entails.

When election results were out on Jan. 20, it was no surprise that SCIRI Shi'ites dominated the polls. But the hard numbers have given new steam to Iraq's politicians, who are wheeling and dealing to find enough common ground on which to build the government.

The Sunnis keep expecting more than their 20% of the population warrants. They should count themselves lucky to have won nearly 25% of the 275 parliamentary seats. Nor are Sunni leaders giving any public credit to the US for the hard behind-the-scenes work which Khalilzad has done in recent months. He has been trying to restrain the Shi'ites and persuade them to accommodate Sunni constitutional concerns.

This kind of diplomacy does not impress Saddam loyalists or Neo-Salafi jihadis - many of the latter being Arab volunteers - fighting in Iraq any more than the Sunnis' new parliamentary gains. But it could wean more moderate nationalists away from hardline Sunni insurgents.

In a process which could stretch into March or April, the factions will decide on a governing programme, on whether the new constitution can be changed, and haggle over the powers of the president, prime minister and cabinet ministers. The UIA, with 128 seats, dominate the talks and SCIRI already has set the three conditions mentioned above as red lines. But SCIRI is not the UIA; it is only its leading party, and needs a two-thirds majority of the 275 parliamentary seats to form a government.

After the elections, Khalilzad wrote in The Wall Street Journal that the constitution "will...need to be amended...to broaden support". He called for compromises on "issues such as federalization..." But Abdel Aziz al-Hakim of SCIRI has ruled out any such changes, while others have warned that a Sunni-Shi'ite war might be unavoidable.

New Power Balance: The following are the results of the Dec. 15 elections for the various communities in Iraq, listed by numerical order - in terms of seats won per community:

(1) The religious Shi'ites got 130 seats, of which 128 went to the UIA - down from 146 seats as a result of the Jan. 30, 2005 elections to the interim National Assembly. The other two seats went to al-Risaliyoun of young Shi'ite mulla Muqtada al-Sadr, who this time backed the UIA but he remains strongly opposed to federalism. However, Sadr has vetoed the secular Shi'ite leader Iyad Allawi who wants to, but cannot, form a secular government without the seats of at least 32 UIA defectors - or 30 with Sadr's two.

(2) The Sunni Arabs got 59 seats, up from 17 after the Jan. 30 polls. Of these 44 went to the Iraqi Accordance Front (IAF), 11 went to the Iraqi Front for National Dialogue (IFND), 3 went to the Reconciliation & Liberation Bloc (R&L), and the remaining one seat went to the Iraqi Nation List (INL).

(3) The Kurds got 58 seats, of which 53 went to the Kurdistan Coalition (KC) - consisting mainly of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), down from 75 after the Jan. 30 polls, and the other three went to the Islamic Party of Kurdistan (IPK). Even if Allawi (interim prime minister from June 28, 2004 to Jan. 30, 2005) manages to rally the IPK with KC and get all the other non-Shi'ite seats, he will not be able to gather the two-thirds (182 seats) majority required for him to run for the top post of prime minister. This is because of the 130-seat Shi'ite religious bloc. Allawi's failure to form a secular government means a setback for the US in Iraq; but this means the US will alter the geo-political map in favour of the Sunni status quo, with Syria to be ruled by the Sunni majority once again at the expense of the Alawites and Lebanon's radical Shi'ite movement Hizbollah. This means the Shi'te political leadership in Lebanon will switch away from the Shi'ite theocracy of Iran in favour of more democratic regimes in the Middle East. It was the Shi'ite theocracy of Iran which got Hakim to insist on federalism in Iraq's constitution, because he is said to want a theocracy to be established in a part of Iraq which will eventually confederate with the Tehran regime. But the US and the UK are said to be active in southern Iran - the deadly Ahwaz bombing on Jan. 24 came as a reminder that the theocracy had serious problems in oil-rich Khuzistan and Balochistan. Sadr's visit to Iran last week did not reverse his Arab/nationalist resolve and his rivalry with Hakim. Sadr is strongly against federalism and Hakim's elevation to Supreme Leader in Iraq (see rim1-IraqHakimSadr-Jan23-06).

(4) Allawi's secular list, which includes liberal Shi'ites and Sunnis, got 25 seats - down from 40 after the Jan. 30 polls. The US wants Allawi in power, even as a deputy PM.

(5) Al-Rafidain List (Christian) got one seat.

(6) The Yazidi minority got one seat.

(7) The Turkmen minority got one seat.

Ahmad Chalabi, a secular Shi'ite and former exile who before the US invasion was a favourite among American officials to be Iraq's new leader, failed to win even one seat for himself.

The Jan. 20 release of election results set the ground for the latest, and most definitive, in a series of struggles over the shape of post-Saddam Iraq. It put the country on the verge of completing the complex process laid out in the Temporary Administrative Law (TAL), the interim constitution written by US officials in consultation with a panel of Iraqis chosen by the occupation authorities.

The TAL, promulgated just before the handover of sovereignty to an interim government in June 2004, laid out a timetable for election of an interim parliament and for drafting and ratification of a new constitution, which culminated in the Dec. 15 parliamentary vote.

Shi'ite and Kurdish politicians have announced their willingness to form a government of national unity, including the Sunni Arabs. But Hakim has come out against the term "national unity" because, he said, "these words meant there was no democracy in Iraq". He said he preferred a "national participation government", as "unity" came to denote an opposite meaning. Reading between the lines of his utterances in the past three weeks, Hakim seemed to indicate that - since the Sunnis still had limited bargaining power in the negotiations and since the crucial question was whether the Shi'ite religious parties will seek a broad coalition or a narrow one - he would stick to his three pre-conditions: federalism, de-Ba'thification and renouncing terrorism.

A member of Allawi's party, Mahdi al-Hafeth, called for an inclusive approach, saying: "The idea is some kind of umbrella of national unity on the basis of a contract. It must be based on a common programme", adding that agreement would require concessions on all sides. Allawi's proposed coalition hopes to gain from a split within UIA ranks - which began about two weeks ago - so that enough Shi'ite seats join his group for a compromise government. The US is said to be working on this; Ambassador Khalilzad is even working on getting the Sadrists on board, along with the Fadhila block and some of the Da'wa factions.

Hakim has said the choice of which Sunnis he would include in a new government would depend on "who is closer to us regarding the principles we believe in" - meaning his three pre-conditions. But even outgoing Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Ja'fari, head of one key Da'wa faction, is not so keen on Hakim's plans to form a regional theocracy in southern Iraq.

In fact there have been some intimate contacts in the past two weeks between Ja'fari and President Jalal Talabani, the leader of PUK who wants wider powers for the presidency. There is one rumour that Ja'fari might agree to increase presidential powers and resolve the Kirkuk issue if the Kurds, Allawi and the Sunnis throw their weight behind him for the post of prime minister. Hakim's candidate for prime minister is Vice President Dr. Adel Abdel-Mahdi, a key SCIRI member.

Al-Fadhila Party, another Islamist group backed by Iran, has warned that if its Secretary-General Nadeem al-Jabiri is taken out of the race for the post of prime minister it would leave the UIA. Allawi has indicate he may accept the post of deputy prime minister under a Ja'fari premiership if the coalition he is trying to build gets 32 MPs to defect from the UIA - or just 30 from the UIA plus Sadr's two MPs. Sadr is an ally of Ja'fari and wants him to be the next prime minister. Several non-SCIRI leaders have stated in recent weeks that the UIA was no longer a must for the religious Shi'ite parties since it is mainly serving Hakim's purpose. The next government's four-year term is long enough to warrant better alternatives than the UIA, as far as the non-SCIRI Shi'ites are concerned.

A search for common ground means facing some of Iraq's most divisive questions, which were deferred during the writing of a constitution adopted in the Oct. 15 referendum. Foremost among them is the desire of Shi'ite and Kurdish parties to form strong regional governments, a desire which Hakim recently reaffirmed, although Sunni Arabs have complained bitterly that such a course would lead to the dismembering of the country. But the Kurdish interest in federalism is not identical to that of Hakim; and the Kurds already have the tacit commitments of the Sunnis and most Shi'ites for a federal system for Kurdistan as an exceptional case. If they manage to get such commitments in writing, then the Kurds will not object to amending the constitution to defeat Hakim's plan.

Yet even if Hakim gets his theocracy in southern Iraq, this does not necessarily mean it will survive. What is more important is that the Hakim experience has taught the Americans a good lesson: not to trust someone who betrays one's liberator - a grave sin which, according to a high-ranking US official, Hakim has committed already. The US shift for a Sunni-ruled Syria, at the expense of Assad's Ba'thist dictatorship, alters the entire balance of power in the Middle East which will affect Iran. Sectarian civil wars now are between Sunnis and Shi'ites, rather than between Muslims and Christians in Lebanon in the 1970s and 1980s.
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Publication:APS Diplomat News Service
Date:Jan 30, 2006
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