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    Middle East
     Feb 15, 2006
Jaafari's path strewn with rocks
By Sami Moubayed

DAMASCUS - The election of Ibrahim Jaafari within the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) to become the full-term prime minister of Iraq re-establishes Shi'ite politicians who are products of Islamic parties at the height of power in the post-Saddam Hussein era. At the same time, Jaafari has the daunting task of appeasing the different factions in Iraq, including the US.

Jaafari's victory of 64 votes, as opposed to Vice President Adel Abdul Mehdi's 63, was made possible through the support of the young rebel leader Muqtada al-Sadr, who is popular in the Shi'ite community and an opponent of Mehdi and his Supreme Council

for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). The choice of Jaafari raises a number of questions for Iraq. Who won the new elections? Was it Iran, or the Americans, or Syria? Apparently, anybody but the Iraqis themselves.

The West, and particularly the United States, was panicking at the thought of bringing the SCIRI to power in Iraq, because of its close connections to Iran and its declared desire to carve an autonomous Shi'ite district in southern Iraq. In this aspect, the Americans got what they wanted. The US had earlier persuaded the Sunnis to run for the National Assembly, thereby reducing the number of votes that went to the UIA.

They made sure that in order for the Iran-backed Shi'ites to form any government, they would have to do so with the Sunnis, since they would not get a majority two-thirds vote to create a cabinet on their own, as was the case in the 2005 polls.

Washington would certainly have preferred a secular Shi'ite for the job of prime minister, but given the limited choice of candidates, Jaafari was the best of all evils for the Americans. Although he heads the Islamic Da'wa Party, which also has connections to Iran, Da'wa is far more independent than the SCIRI from Iranian influence.

The SCIRI, after all, was created by Iran in the 1980s, while Da'wa was created by Iraqis inside Iraq in the 1960s. The London branch of Da'wa that Jaafari headed during his exile under Saddam was more independent than the Tehran-branch of his party. Da'wa did not fight against its own countrymen during the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-88 as the SCIRI had done when it fought with the Iranian army, nor does it receive any training or money from Iran.

Jaafari is simply not an Iranian stooge, like the SCIRI's Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, who was created by the mullahs of Tehran and continues to be financed by them. Jaafari does not want to create a Shi'ite regime in southern Iraq, an idea vigorously backed by Hakim.

Alarming to the Americans, however, will be Jaafari's alliance with Muqtada, a man who led two rebellions against the US in 2004 and who is one of the loudest anti-American voices in Shi'ite Iraq. The Kurds and the US, who are not pleased by Jaafari's alliance with Muqtada, have articulated a demand that the new premier should include former prime minister Iyad Allawi in the new government, possibly as minister of the interior.

This has been curtly refused by Muqtada, who hates Allawi for his secularism, pro-Americanism and the fact that Allawi ordered a massive air raid on Muqtada's movement when serving as prime minister in 2004, pledging at the time to crush Muqtada and his insurgency.

The Kurds, and President Jalal Talabani, have threatened to boycott Jaafari's new cabinet if it does not include Allawi, making the job all the more difficult for the new premier. He cannot say "yes" because this would anger the man who tipped the elections in his favor. Angering Muqtada means also angering the urban poor that support him, especially the youth. Appeasing Muqtada means upsetting the Americans and Talabani.

Iran is not too pleased at the outcome. It is probably furious, however, at the last-minute backing that Jaafari got from Muqtada. After all, Muqtada had visited Iran in January and pledged full cooperation with Tehran. He made the Iranians believe he would back their man, Mehdi, in the UIA's elections. Muqtada then back-stabbed the Iranians, ending a very temporary honeymoon, and helped break Iranian ambitions by throwing his full weight behind Jaafari.

Muqtada's visit to Syria, shortly before the elections, further complicates the situation. Did Syria push Muqtada in secret to back Jaafari and abandon Mehdi, despite Damascus' massive need for Iranian support, because it did not want the SCIRI in power?

The SCIRI would mean clerical rule in neighboring Baghdad, and autonomy for the Shi'ites, something the Syrians do not want. Officially, Syria remains committed to the Iranians and cannot say "no" to Tehran and President Mahmud Ahmadinejad. After all, the controversial president has been very good to Damascus since coming to power in 2005, and crossing him at such a stage would seem unwise for a regime that is in much need for regional allies - especially strong ones such as Iran.

In behind-the-scene talks between Muqtada and Syria, it is highly possible that Syria was the one to push the rebel cleric into abandoning Iran and obstructing the ambitions of the SCIRI. By playing this game, the Syrians believe they are courting Muqtada, a strongman in Shi'ite politics, yet also indirectly courting the Americans by obstructing Iran's choice for the premiership.

Jaafari, after all, is a former ally of Syria. So is Talabani, who wants to impose Allawi on Jaafari. He has been working since last summer to restore Allawi to power in Iraq, seeing him as a familiar face in the Iraqi jungle; someone who has the will and power to get things done, crush the insurgency and bring order to Iraq.

Syria prefers Allawi as minister of the interior because when the job was held by the SCIRI under Jaafari's first cabinet, the SCIRI minister used to ministry to arrest, torture and settle old scores with his Sunni rivals.

Overall, then, the Americans will be content, for now, with the results. They want Jaafari to appoint "non-sectarian" politicians as ministers of the interior and defense and have threatened to reduce US military assistance to Iraq if this demand is not met. This demand becomes more difficult with the Jaafari-Muqtada alliance as Muqtada will insist on sectarian ministries for both portfolios.

So Jaafari will have to walk a tight-rope, pleasing both the Americans and Muqtada. This will be very difficult, unless a breakthrough is achieved within the Shi'ite community. Jaafari is probably betting on the influence of his brother-in-law, the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. The veteran cleric intervened in 2004 to convince Muqtada to lay down his arms, and likewise to secure a promise that Allawi would not arrest him. Sistani is the only person who can command the Iraqi Shi'ites. Everybody listens to him: Jaafari, the SCIRI, Muqtada, Iran and the Americans.

He can either persuade Muqtada to drop his demand for a sectarian minister for the two contested posts, to make Jaafari's selection easier, or talk the Americans into accepting a Sadrist as minister of the interior or defense (something they will flatly turn down).

He can also persuade the Iranians to give Jaafari the benefit of the doubt, and thereby instruct the SCIRI to work with him, not against him, as a second-best cabinet.

What is certain for today, however, is that the Americans are temporarily satisfied and will not abandon Iraq, as they had threatened to do a few weeks ago. They are pleased that Iranian influence has been controlled in Iraq. It has not, however, been eliminated. This is something the Americans must never forget.

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 .)

Jaafari keeps his job  (Feb 14, '06)

Iraqi visions on the road to Damascus
(Feb 10, '06)

Plan B and four nightmares in Iraq
(Feb 4, '06)

US shifts Iraq loyalties
(Feb 1, '06)


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