Iraqi Negotiators Seek a Formula

By Caryle Murphy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 26, 2005

BAGHDAD, April 25 -- Iraqi politicians sought points of agreement as they bargained behind closed doors Monday in an attempt to establish a government. Rather than focusing on high principles and lofty goals, participants said the subject was numbers.

A Kurdish negotiating team, for example, met with a group of Sunni Arabs who were willing to join the government if they could have nine cabinet posts. Much of the discussion focused on whether this was a reasonable total and how it might be achieved, according to two participants, Saleh Mutlak, a Sunni Arab businessman, and Hoshyar Zebari, a Kurdish politician. Kurds are Sunni Muslims but are not Arabs.

Mutlak said that Prime Minister-designate Ibrahim Jafari, a Shiite Muslim, had disappointed the Sunnis in an earlier meeting by offering them only four ministries.

But things brightened, he added, when he met with President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd. "He said he had convinced [Jafari] to give up one ministry and the Kurds will give up one, so now it's six," Mutlak said. "And that was confirmed in our meeting with the Kurds today."

Zebari, who is expected to continue as foreign minister in the new government, agreed that "we are dealing with arithmetic."

Jafari failed yet again Monday to announce a new government, as some officials had predicted he would. Although it was not clear when he would take that step, the Shiite leader and other politicians faced growing international pressure to bring an end to their horse-trading.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, in telephone calls to Kurdish leaders and in a meeting in Washington with a senior member of Jafari's political coalition, urged Iraqis to end the deadlock, a State Department spokesman said.

"We and the Iraqis agree that everybody would be well served by having a government in place, not just on the security side of things, but . . . to deal with the whole range of challenges facing Iraq," spokesman J. Adam Ereli said. "And that is the goal to which the leadership of Iraq, the leadership that represents the people as determined by elections on Jan. 30, is working toward."

Last week, Ashraf Jehangir Qazi, the U.N. special envoy to Iraq, delivered the same message in a meeting with Jafari, Qazi's office said.

Arithmetic bedevils efforts to form a new government because there is a finite number of cabinet seats -- about 30 -- and many groups to satisfy. One of the most important groups to draw in, say Kurdish and Shiite politicians, are the Sunni Arabs, who were the favored group under President Saddam Hussein but who largely boycotted the elections that resulted from his ouster.

Sunnis have also led an insurgency against the U.S. military occupation, targeting both American soldiers and Iraqis working with them. The hope is that including the disaffected Sunni Arab minority will help defuse the insurgency, which has recently increased its attacks. Sunnis who enter the government will be expected to do their part to persuade the rebels to put down their arms, politicians say.

"In order for them to be in the political process, they should behave as if they are against terrorism," said Ali Dabbagh, a spokesman for Jafari's predominantly Shiite political coalition, the United Iraqi Alliance. "It's a major part of their responsibility."

Mutlak said Sunnis could help persuade the insurgents. "When they have hope and will not be worried about their future, the insurgency will drop down a lot," he said.

But some Sunnis say that any Sunni who joins the new government will lose credibility with the insurgents. "I see signs of anger and dismay at those people offering their services," said Wamidh Nadhmi, spokesman for a coalition of Sunni and Shiite groups opposed to the U.S. presence.

By participating in a Shiite-dominated government, Nadhmi added, Sunni leaders will guarantee that "the Americans will remain the totally unchallenged ruling power in Iraq."

An insurgent group warned on an Islamic Web site Monday that it would kill Sunnis taking part in the new government, the Agence France-Presse news service reported.

"We have been threatened today, you know that," said Mutlak, referring to the threat made by Al Qaeda in Iraq, a militant group led by a Jordanian, Abu Musab Zarqawi. "We know the job is very difficult but we want the political process to go on, otherwise the hard-line people will win."

Under Iraq's interim constitution, Jafari has until May 7 to form a government. If he fails, the three-man Presidency Council must nominate a new prime minister.

Mutlak said his group of Sunnis were "insisting on a joint , all of us," on Tuesday to discuss the cabinet makeup. And they want the interim Prime Minister, Ayad Allawi, to be included, Mutlak added, despite the fact that Jafari has stopped trying to bring Allawi into the new government because they could not agree on numbers: Jafari was offering two ministries; Allawi wanted four.

Mutlak said he had an idea how to work things out.

"Probably we can give one [ministry]," he said. "The Kurds can give one and [Jafari's alliance] will give two."

In other developments Monday, the U.S. military reported that a 20-year-old security detainee died in a hospital Sunday from gunshot wounds he received two weeks ago while fighting U.S. forces. Also, a U.S. soldier was killed when his patrol struck a roadside bomb northwest of Baghdad, military officials said.

The Associated Press reported that insurgents launched two attacks on Iraqi oil facilities and personnel in the north, setting fire to pumps near Kirkuk and opening fire on police guarding a convoy of tanker trucks, according to unnamed officials. Two policemen were wounded and three insurgents arrested in a one-hour gun battle over the convoy, police said.

Staff writer Robin Wright in Washington contributed to this report.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company