Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Right partners in Iraq

February 16, 2005

Seeking right partner

SHIITES, the long-oppressed majority in Iraq, have done well in the Jan.30 elections, but they may have to make compromises with other groups since they failed to win an absolute two-third majority of the seats in the 275-member National Assembly.

The 47.6 per cent vote won by the Shiite list -- the United Iraqi Alliance -- endorsed by the country's senior-most Shiite religious leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani is far short of the two-third majority that would allow the group to form a government of its own.

Therefore it has to depend on other groups in a coalition arrangement. Indeed, some Shiites in the list are saying their showing in the elections qualifies them to reject the post-Saddam Hussein, US-drafted interim constitution that insists on a two-third parliamentary majority for a government. However, that would mean alienating the Kurds and another step towards disintegration of the country since the Kurds could break away from Baghdad and set up their own entity in the north if their emergence as kingmakers in the country is not recognised and respected.

Jaafari favourite

As of Wednesday, Ibrahim Al Jaafari, head of the Dawa Party, one of the two dominant groups in the Shiite list, who is a vice-president in the interim government, emerged as the favourite for the powerful post of prime minister in a Shiite-Kurdish alliance where the Kurds would be given the ceremonial post of president. They want Jalal Talabani, head of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, to be president.

The Kurds also want some key ministries in exchange for their supporting a Shiite prime minister and government.

The Kurds have won 25.4 per cent of the votes and it makes an ideal coalition partner, but then a Shiite-Kurdish coalition would technically" need another four per cent for a two-third majority.

However, in the final count, the Shiite list is expected to have about 140 seats -- two seats more than needed for a simple majority -- in the assembly once those votes that went to candidates who did not get enough to secure a seat are redistributed. The Kurds will have about 70 and interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi's Iraqi National Accord (INA) will have 40. That meant a Shiite-Kurdish coalition having 210 seats, five seats more than a two-thirds majority.

A key factor here is the natural alliance between the Kurdish parties and the INA. Both sides are backed by the US and that had been the tie-up between them so far.

The INA got 13.6 per cent of the votes, and a hypothetical Kurdish-INA coalition -- which will have a combined strength of 110 seats in the assembly in the final count -- could prevent the Shiite list from forming a government without their support.

Definitely, the Kurds would not want to throw a spanner in the works since they are seeking the presidency and they need the Shiite list's backing in order to capitalise on their newfound legislative clout.

No doubt, the Americans, who have lost their bet on Allawi, could try to call the shots with the Kurds and force them into demanding that Allawi be named prime minister as a consensus candidate in return for the Kurd-INA alliance join the Shiite list in a coalition.

However, that would mean the Kurds demanding the posts of both president and prime minister, a demand that will surely be shot down by the Shiites.

Sunni political groups that shunned the election will be invited to participate in the new government and in drafting the constitution.

If whatever coalition that is formed wants to bring in the Sunnis, then the Sunnis have to be given at least one prominent position in the government. Again, that intensifies the battle for top posts.

The Shiite list had several aspirants for premiership. They included Adel Abdel Mahdi, the interim finance minister who belongs to the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), the other dominant group in the Shiite list, Ahmed Chalabi, once the candidate favoured by the US, and Hussein Shahristani, a physicist.

The SCIRI was reported to have withdrawn Mahdi's candidacy in favour of Jaafari on Wednesday and thus clearing the way for a Shiite-Kurdish alliance.

Allawi's importance

However, some analysts say it is too early to write off Allawi, a US-backed Shiite who describes himself as secular, as a compromise to unite religious and ethnic groups.

The other groups which fielded candidates in the elections did badly. The Sunni group of interim President Ghazi Al Yawar got one per cent of the votes; elder statesman Adnan Pachachi failed to win a single seat. In all, the Sunnis, most of whom stayed away or were prevented from voting, got five seats.

After the results of the elections are confirmed on Wednesday, if they are unchallenged, the National Assembly will approve a prime minister by early March.

There is a tacit agreement that the prime minister will be a Shiite, the president a Kurd and one of two vice presidents a Sunni.

However, the Kurds and Sunnis will not accept a clerical Shiite because they want to pre-empt Sharia, or Islamic law, being enshrined in the constitution as the primary source of law as suggested by some leaders of the Shiite alliance.

Sadr factor

In another blow to the US, Jaafari, who is emerging as the favourite to become the prime minister, wants to bring in Moqtada Sadr, a firebrand cleric who has challenged the US dominance of the country, into his cabinet.

At one point Sadr was among America's top enemies in Iraq, with the US military declaring him wanted dead or alive.

One of the first things that Sadr, who is known to have ties with figures in Iran, an archfoe of the US, did after the Jan.30 elections was to call for the US to set a deadline to leave Iraq.

No doubt, the neocon plotters of the invasion and occupation of Iraq are scratching their heads in Washington trying to figure a way out of the quagmire they created for the US by failing to take seriously the complexities of the Iraqi society and the forces that would emerge to the centre-stage once Saddam Hussein was toppled.

Indeed, they might manage to come up with a compromise. But then that would only be a stopgap measure since the going would get much tougher once the National Assembly gets down to drafting a permanent constitution that would be acceptable to the country's three major constituncies -- Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds -- given the deep divisions among them in perceptions of the future of Iraq.