Where Iraq Goes Now

By Jim Hoagland
Thursday, January 26, 2006

Iraq's official election returns bring glad tidings for Ibrahim Jafari, the country's nebulous interim prime minister. For a chastened Bush administration, Jafari becomes something better than an unknown entity: He is a known nonentity.

Jafari's sudden strength in his bid to stay on stems entirely from his weakness: He does not command a major political party or militia. He has done little since taking office nearly nine months ago but give poetic and confusing speeches. If some leaders suck all the oxygen out of a room, Jafari fills it with mist and will-o'-the-wisp.

It is this elusive quality that belatedly recommends him to Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador in Baghdad and crafty overseer of American efforts to be a midwife to a new coalition government.

Iraq's Dec. 15 balloting was orderly and inspiring, but it has created an aftermath that is neither of those things. It has also forced the Bush administration into a silent reassessment of where Iraq is going and how it is going to get there. Increasingly, the country drifts toward the future as two relatively stable autonomous regions and a violently unstable central zone, all linked by a weak central government and a reduced, reactive U.S. military presence.

All things considered, such a loose, imperfect federalism is not the worst outcome that could befall Iraq. Totalitarian systems, whether run by Saddam Hussein or Soviet commissars, create weak power centers when they collapse. A decade of managing their own affairs and security could provide an important transition stage for Iraq's Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds to sort out oil revenue, relations with neighbors and other troublesome issues.

That kind of future -- and a renewal of Jafari's term in office that would make it more likely -- did not figure in the hopes and predictions of U.S. policymakers before the December parliamentary election. Back then, the word passed to Iraqi officials visiting Washington was to form a strong central government, much more quickly and transparently than after the January 2005 election, when Jafari emerged from electoral stalemate as the lowest common denominator in Iraqi leadership.

The administration now gives no sign of trying to hurry things along as it concedes it must deal with the election results it has, not the results it wanted. Those were canceled by the poor showing of Ayad Allawi and Ahmed Chalabi -- secularists who conceivably could have been strong, independent executives -- and successful electioneering by Iranian-backed Shiite parties distrusted by Washington.

As the largest bloc in parliament, the United Iraqi Alliance -- dominated by the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq and the radical cleric Moqtada Sadr -- will ultimately choose the prime minister. Jafari's Dawa party is a junior partner in the alliance and, unlike its Shiite allies, does not have a large militia.

The release of the final results has triggered a new round of three-dimensional chess to allocate cabinet positions among Iraq's three major population groups -- the Shiite majority of the south, the Kurds of the north and the Sunni minority that is the source of central Iraq's continuing violent rebellion.

The Sunnis voted in greatly increased numbers this time and now have a serious claim on cabinet posts. President Bush has hailed this as a breakthrough, portraying voting as an alternative to insurgency.

But a renewal of violence since the election suggests that the Sunnis, egged on by neighboring Arab regimes and Baathist remnants, may be adopting a long-term "vote and fight" strategy to reclaim the kind of power they wielded under the Baathists. That is one outcome far worse than a de facto partition of Iraq, if it comes to that.

Working with nudges, winks, long sit-downs with Iraq's fledgling politicians and inexhaustible patience -- qualities alien to L. Paul Bremer and John Negroponte, his two predecessors as U.S. proconsul -- Khalilzad seems to be maneuvering toward a cabinet that would effectively be run by strong deputy prime ministers while Jafari floats effortlessly above the hard work.

Allawi, both proud and lazy, is reportedly resisting U.S. entreaties to take such a post under Jafari. Chalabi and Sadoun Dulaimi, a Sunni who is currently defense minister, are other possibilities. But Khalilzad's dealmaking talents will be stretched to their limits in getting the Shiite parties to accept U.S.-inspired limits on the political victory they have achieved.

Reality has bitten the Bush administration in Iraq and forced the president to settle for less than he wanted. Let's hope that reality can now do the same with Iraq's newly empowered Shiite leaders.


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