Shiite Politicians' Objections Lead Candidate to Withdraw
By Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, May 28, 2004; Page A19
BAGHDAD, May 27 -- A politically independent Shiite Muslim who had been a top choice of the United States and the United Nations to become Iraq's prime minister withdrew from consideration after objections from formerly exiled Shiite politicians who want the job for themselves, officials involved in the political transition said Thursday.
The politicians' refusal to accept Hussain Shahristani as prime minister has complicated U.S. and U.N. efforts to form an interim Iraqi government to assume limited political authority on June 30, forcing U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi and top U.S. officials to scramble for new candidates. The U.S. occupation authority had hoped to have the government named by Monday, to give appointees a month to work into their new jobs, but U.N. officials said that goal now appears unattainable.
The stand against Shahristani also struck a serious blow to attempts by the United States and the United Nations to fill top positions in the interim government with independents and technocrats instead of politicians, many of whom spent years in exile and enjoy little public support.
The U.S. government funded many exiled opposition politicians during the rule of President Saddam Hussein, and several were appointed to Iraq's Governing Council after Hussein was toppled last year. Because of their unpopularity, however, the occupation authority has sought to minimize their role in Iraq's next government. Yet Shahristani's inability to win their approval illustrates their continuing ability to disrupt U.S. plans for the country's political transition.
"They feel they are a kind of club, and this was a person who is outside their club," said an Iraqi official close to Shahristani. The official said Shahristani, who had met with Brahimi several times over the past few weeks and was regarded as the U.N. envoy's top choice, talked to Brahimi on Tuesday night "and said he couldn't be a candidate because he cannot get the support of this club."
The Shiite politicians who opposed Shahristani's appointment included Ahmed Chalabi, a onetime U.S. ally who heads the Iraqi National Congress, which had been funded by the Pentagon; Ayad Allawi, the leader of the Iraqi National Accord, which had been supported by the CIA; Adel Abdel-Mehdi of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq; and Ibrahim Jafari of the Dawa party, according to people familiar with the discussions with Brahimi.
Allawi, Abdel-Mehdi and Jafari each wants to be prime minister, the sources said.
The process of forming the interim government has also been complicated by demands from ethnic Kurdish politicians. They want a Kurd to be given either the presidency or the prime minister's post. Brahimi and the top two U.S. officials involved in forming the government -- L. Paul Bremer, the civilian administrator of Iraq, and Robert D. Blackwill, a presidential envoy -- have offered the Kurds, who account for about 20 percent of the country's population, one of two vice presidential posts and two of the four most powerful cabinet ministries.
According to sources close to the process, Brahimi, Bremer and Blackwill had planned to give the jobs of president and prime minister to Arabs -- the presidency to a Sunni and the prime ministership to a Shiite. The Shiites, who make up about 60 percent of the population, also would receive one of the vice presidential slots.
Kurdish leaders, who appeared close to accepting the U.S. and U.N. offer a few days ago, have renewed their insistence on one of the top posts, Kurdish officials said.
"The Kurds need one of those two top positions," a senior Kurdish politician said. "We must not be marginalized and must not appear [to be] second-class citizens."
The demands of the Kurdish leaders and the refusal of the Shiite politicians to accept an independent prime minister have turned the process of forming the interim government, which is supposed to be a caretaker administration in power for only seven months, into a complicated, high-stakes negotiation among Iraqis, U.S. officials and U.N. diplomats. Brahimi, Bremer and Blackwill have spent the past few weeks meeting with dozens of different groups of Iraqis in an effort to forge a consensus.
"What's happening here is the fully blown breakout of politics," a senior Bush administration official said.
To some people involved in the process, though, it appears that a handful of former exiles are once again forcing a revision of American plans. Opposition from Iraqi political leaders scuttled earlier U.S. initiatives to write a permanent constitution before the handover of authority and to select a transitional administration through caucuses.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company