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    Middle East
     Feb 4, 2006
Plan B and four nightmares in Iraq
By Sami Moubayed

DAMASCUS - Iraq is boiling with political activity as all parties jockey to decide on who the new prime minister will be after the parliamentary elections of last December. Talks will go into full gear when Maasoud al-Barazani, the president of Iraqi Kurdistan, arrives in Baghdad next week to take part in the negotiations. Barazani speaks for the Kurds, who secured 53 of the 275 seats in the new National Assembly, down from their original 75 in the parliament of 2005.

The Kurds, headed by Barazani and President Jalal Talabani, are upset that their number has been reduced, and that they have to

share power with both the Sunnis and the Iran-backed Shi'ites of Abdul Aziz al-Hakim and the Supreme Council of the Iraqi Revolution (SCIRI).

The heavyweight in Iraqi politics, the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) of Iran-backed Shi'ite politicians (which includes the SCIRI), will have the strongest say in deciding who the prime minister will be, since it came out with a near-majority, winning 127 of the seats in the assembly. This means it is 56 seats short of the two-thirds majority needed to form a government on its own - and elect the premier of its choice.

At present, there are four candidates for the job of prime minister: current Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari of the Da'wa Party, current Vice President Adel Abdul Mehdi from the SCIRI, Nadim al-Jabiri of the al-Fadila al-Islamiyya Party and Hussein Shahristani of the UIA.

All of them are the product of Islamic parties. All of them are frowned on by Washington. The last thing the Americans wanted to install in Iraq, after toppling Saddam Hussein in 2003, was a group of men who believe in political Islam and are backed by the clerics of Tehran. This fear is shared by regional states such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt and Syria.

If it had its way, the US would have chosen ex-premier Iyad Allawi, a secular Shi'ite, to lead the new Iraq. He is strong, is well connected in the Arab world, is allied to the Sunnis, and does not have an Islamic agenda. He is the only man who is willing and able to stand up to Iranian meddling in Iraqi affairs, which if anything is likely to increase under President Mahmud Ahmadinejad.

The four current candidates are all allied to Tehran. All of them spent many years in exile in Iran during Saddam's dictatorship and want to repay the Islamic Republic's support by strengthening ties with the mullahs.

Four US nightmares
Ibrahim al-Jaafari
. The current premier is the strongest of all the candidates, despite all media talk from opponents who blame him for the appalling security situation and the corruption prevailing in Iraq. Born in 1947, Jaafari became prime minister after the elections of January 2005. He had been one of the two vice presidents of ex-president Ghazi al-Yawer in the interim government of 2004. He is also leader of the Da'wa Party, one of the main Islamic political parties operating in Iraq under Iranian funds since the 1960s.

Jaafari was educated as a medical doctor at the University of Mosul. He joined the Da'wa Party in 1966 and was active in party politics until the Ba'athist regime came to power in 1968 and outlawed all political parties. The Ba'ath was particularly harsh with the Da'wa Party, accusing it of being on the Iranian payroll and of wanting to topple the regime. Jaafari fled to Iran after the Islamic revolution took place in 1979, where he was received with honors by ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, then went to London in 1989, becoming spokesman for his party there.

During his stay in Tehran, he helped Hakim found SCIRI. Saddam responded by executing five members of Jaafari's family still living in Iraq. Jaafari worked part-time as a religious preacher, especially during the month of Ramadan, where he gave Islamic advice free of charge to the Iraqi community in Britain. Jaafari returned to Iraq after the downfall of Saddam and served as first chairman of the Interim Governing Council.

Jaafari brought his Da'wa Party into the UIA and became prime minister on April 7, 2005. Opinion polls conducted in Iraq since the US war show that he is one of the most popular leaders in Iraq, preceded by the rebel leader Muqtada al-Sadr and Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who happens to be Jaafari's brother-in-law. It was Sistani's support in 2005 that secured the premiership for Jaafari. His party is also viewed with high regard in Iraq, mainly because of its long history in opposing the Ba'athists, but also because Sistani has graced it with his blessing. Even today, Da'wa is regarded as decent and uncorrupted.

Adel Abdul-Mehdi. He is a heavyweight challenging Jaafari. Born in Baghdad in 1948, he was persecuted for his Maoist views as a young man, then arrested and tortured after the Ba'athists came to power in 1968. He escaped to France, where he abandoned Maoism, rediscovered Islam, studied economics and political science, then became chairman of the French Institute for Islamic Studies.

The Ba'athists sentenced him to death for his opposition activities and stripped him of his Iraqi passport. Like many of the Shi'ite politicians, he went to Iran after the revolution of 1979 and helped Hakim found the SCIRI. He, too, received orders and money from Tehran, working closely with Iranian authorities to topple Saddam during the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-88.

He returned to Iraq after the downfall of Saddam in 2003 and become minister of finance in the cabinet of Iyad Allawi in 2004. In an interview with CNN's Late Edition in 2005, Abdul-Mehdi denied all talk about him wanting to establish an Islamic regime in Iraq, based on the Iranian theocracy. He said: "We don't want either a Shi'ite government or an Islamic government. Now we are working for a democratic government. This is our choice." Not many people believe him, either within the Sunni community of Iraq or in the US.

Hussein Shahristani. He is a compromise candidate for all parties. Born in Karbala in 1942, he studied nuclear chemistry and graduated with a PhD from the University of Toronto in 1969. Married to a Canadian woman, he was a student activist with Islamic views and headed the Iraqi Student Union during his college years.

He returned to Iraq and became a member of the Atomic Power Committee in 1970. In 1971, he became a professor at Mosul University, then Baghdad University, angering regime authorities for refusing to join the ruling Ba'ath Party. He became chief of the Iraq Atomic Energy Commission but was arrested in 1980 for refusing to build a nuclear bomb for Saddam, right before the Iraqi dictator's war on Iran.

He was tortured heavily in jail but managed to escape in 1991, during the chaos of the Gulf War, and took up refuge in Iran. His heroism for having said "no" to Saddam, suffered in jail and exile, then worked for the dictator's downfall all score him points within Shi'ite, Sunni and Kurdish circles in Iraq. Unlike Jaafari, he is not responsible for the failures of the past 12 months. He has announced his decision to work with all parties and has shown no tendency toward radicalization since 2003.

Nadim al-Jabiri. He is another compromise candidate from the al-Fadila al-Islamiyya Party, which is allied and born out of the Sadr movement, currently headed by Muqtada. Jabiri was born in Baghdad in 1959, studied political science and worked as a professor in Iraq for more than 20 years. He has voiced his opposition to sectarian politics, claiming that all sides should unite in the post-Saddam order. "Iraq nowadays is full of sectarian tension, and our information says the tension is increasing as the deliberations regarding the formation of the government is going on," he said to Doha-based Al-Jazeera, adding that "it is very important that the coming prime minister is acceptable to most Iraqi factions. This will bridge the gaps and re-establish trust among all parties."

Jabiri pointed out that he would be willing to disengage himself from his party and run as an independent if this would please different parties and enable him to become the new premier. If he is not nominated as a member, Jabiri might withdraw from the alliance, to mess things up for the remaining candidates and hamper Iranian ambitions at bringing Jaafari or Abdul-Mehdi to power.

Plan B
The United States has realized, too little and too late, that those to benefit most from the Anglo-American war on Iraq were the Shi'ites of Iran. The US administration has bluntly said it would have to re-evaluate plan A, meaning its military and financial assistance to Iraq, if an Iran-backed government is created. It would stop, or curb, its massive effort to equip and train the Iraqi army and police.

It has already angered the Shi'ites by giving clear support to the Sunnis, whom it encouraged to run in the elections and who came out, in total, with 59 seats, thereby breaking the clear-cut Shi'ite majority obtained in January 2005.

The election results mean that the Iran-backed Shi'ites cannot form a government on their own. They will have to ally themselves with the Kurds, who are mostly secular, and the Sunnis, who although numerically inferior to the Shi'ites are nevertheless the traditional rulers of Iraq and have the power to stop the Sunni insurgency.

This insurgency has already started showing signs of division as Sunni clerics criticize the terrorism of the al-Qaeda branch in Iraq and its leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Some want to lay down arms and join the political process, while a few want to continue their military activities.

The Americans believe that once the Sunnis become decision-makers in Iraq, they will shoulder blame for economic, political and security affairs with the Shi'ites. They will use all their influence to end the Sunni insurgency, and then try to get rid of the Americans through "honorable cooperation" rather than armed resistance.

Naseer al-Any, a member of the Iraqi Islamic Party (a Sunni one), said to the Christian Science Monitor, "We are convinced that we are in a powerful position now. There is a change in the way the Americans deal with us."

Zalmay Khalilzad, the US ambassador to Iraq, told Newsweek that talks had already started between the US and the Sunni insurgency at a military base in Anbar province. He said, "Now we have won over the Sunni political leadership. The next step is to win over the insurgents."

This peace between Washington and the Sunnis is a clear signal to the Shi'ites that they are no longer the White House favorites in Iraq. Reda Taki of the SCIRI told the Christian Science Monitor, "I am prepared to go down into the streets and take up arms and fight to prevent the Ba'athist dictators and terrorists [in reference to the Sunnis] from coming back to power."

Khalilzad came close to saying that the United States had abandoned the Shi'ites in an interview with the Washington Post, when he pointed out that any future US assistance to a Shi'ite-led government was at stake if an Iran-backed UIA leader became prime minister, bringing much joy to the Iraqi Sunni community.

The ambassador said, "We are saying, if you choose the wrong candidates, that will affect US aid." He has conditioned that the "security" ministries of Defense and Interior be given to non-sectarian politicians, while the Iran-backed Shi'ites are demanding them for themselves.

This was immediately backed by a Sunni decision last Saturday to create a group to lobby against giving the ministries to "sectarian politicians". Khalilzad is apparently very close to US President George W Bush. The president is hearing alarming reports from his ambassador about the rising threat of Iranian influence in Iraqi politics and the absolute need to work with the Sunnis.

Obviously, Bush realizes the risks of such an offensive. The Shi'ites, after all, were among America's primary allies in the post-Saddam order. It was the support of Shi'ites such as Sistani and Jaafari that made life in Iraq a little bit more bearable for the Americans.

Bush needs the security of a plan B for his army in Iraq. He clearly wants it to work with the Sunnis, whom he mistakenly had tried to sideline since 2003. The US has tried to court the Sunnis for the past year and one of the reasons it is demanding that the Interior Ministry be given to independent politicians is that under Jaafari, the ministry was controlled by a member of the SCIRI.

Jaafari was involved in arresting and torturing Sunni politicians, using the police force to settle old scores with the Sunnis. All this does is add fuel to the Sunni insurgency. David Ignatius commented in the Washington Post, "The American envoy is deploying a weapon the US hasn't used much in Iraq - the word 'no'."

He added that if the Iraqis don't follow the US agenda, Washington threatens "to walk away". Turning its back on a country it destroyed before repairing it would be a nightmare for the Iraqis. This might be enough reason for Iraqis to act wisely and listen to what the Americans are saying. But the Americans must realize that democracy, although it has its side-effects, always produces situations that can be handled in a civilized and sophisticated manner.

Walking away would ruin whatever Bush wanted history to say about him in Iraq. On the contrary, the Americans must say to themselves: "The Iran-backed Shi'ites came to power. Fine. We can deal with that. A democracy means that they rule until 2010 and then, if they fail in office, they will be ejected by the people." The Americans have to believe in the democratic system they are creating in Iraq. They have no other choice.

Sami Moubayed is a Syrian political analyst.

(Copyright 2006 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us for information on sales, syndication and republishing .)

US shifts Iraq loyalties
(Feb 1, '06)

A farewell to Iraqi arms? (Jan 25, '06)

After the Shi'ite victory, the work starts (Jan 24, '06)


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