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World Opinion Roundup by Jefferson Morley

Washington's Waning Influence in Iraq

Shiite Demands Outweigh U.S. Preference for Prime Minister

By Jefferson Morley
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 22, 2005; 11:50 AM

The haggling that culminated in the selection of Interim Vice President Ibraham Jafari as the Shiite candidate to be Iraq's next prime minister illustrates the limits of Washington's influence over the country's new government.

After weeks of behind the scenes negotiations, Jafari prevailed over two candidates who had more support in Washington: one-time darling of the Pentagon turned Shiite nationalist Ahmed Chalabi and finance minister Adel Abdel Mahdi.

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Jafari is the leader of the Dawa Party, "a conservative religious Shiite group that is one of the country's largest political parties," reports Voice of America He gets good press in Iran where he spent 10 years in exile. The conservative Tehran Times recently ran a favorable Agence France Presse profile describing Jafari as a "Shiite modernist" who was "among the first to organize demonstrations opposing the presence of U.S.-led troops on Iraqi soil."

Chalabi, by contrast, was the Bush administration's first choice to run post-Saddam Iraq. In April 2003, the U.S. military airlifted Chalabi and his armed supporters into southern Iraq, right behind advancing U.S. forces. But within a year, the Jerusalem Post notes that Chalabi "fell out of favor with the US when he was thought to have been spying for Iran. His party was also accused of misleading the US by supplying it with false information about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq."

Shiite choice for prime minister Ibrahim Jafari, left, and Iraqi National Congress leader Ahmed Chalabi. (AFP / Reuters)
In what the Post calls a "remarkable turnaround," Chalabi allied himself with Iraq's religious Shiites and resurrected himself as a nationalist. He embraced radical anti-American cleric Moqtada Sadr as part of his bid to become prime minister, according to Paul McGeough, Baghdad correspondent for the Sydney Morning Herald.

Chalabi's "policy commitments" were intended to show he was not a U.S. puppet. They included "a threat to cancel contracts signed by the US and UN-appointed interim government and to drop murder and other criminal charges against his new-found ally, al-Sadr," McGeough writes.

Jafari made a deal of his own that sidelined another pro-American candidate, according to McGeough. "Jafari emerged as a front runner [last] week when haggling in the victorious United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) eliminated his main rival, the French-educated Adel Abdul-Mahdi."

Mahdi, the finance minister in the interim government, had replaced Chalabi as Washington's favored candidate in recent months, according Agence France-Press. and other online news outlets.

Bush administration supporters had applauded Mahdi's criticism of American news coverage of Iraq at the American Enterprise Institute last October.

Mahdi also makes no secret of his desire to privatize Iraq's oil industry in ways that would benefit U.S. firms. In December, he told an audience at the National Press Club in Washington that Iraq was trying to develop "a new oil law" that would "be open to investment, to foreign investment downstream, maybe even upstream. So I think this is very promising to the American investors and to American enterprises, certainly to oil companies."

Mahdi will have a role in the new government, but probably not the top job, according to McGeough. He reportedly pulled out of the prime minister's race "in return for a promise of at least two ministries."

Iraq's next prime minister will face conflicts with Washington on two key points, says Dilip Hiro, an Indian-British writer, in the newsweekly Outlookindia At stake are the nature of the Iraqi constitution that the new assembly will write and the presence of U.S. troops in the country.

Hiro notes that Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani and Hussein Shahristani, a leader of the UIA, have endorsed calls to make Islam "the sole source of legislation in the permanent constitution."

"While Shiites overwhelmingly favor specifying the Sharia as the sole source of legislation, the Kurdish leaders are not so keen. And the Americans are decidedly against it," says Hiro. "But such a provision in the constitution could be an effective way to conciliate the Sunni militants who want 'the flag of Islam to fly in Iraq.'"

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