Raw Politics in Iraq

By David Ignatius
Friday, February 17, 2006

From an American standpoint, Iraq's elections have provided a Middle Eastern demonstration of Murphy's Law: Whatever can go wrong will go wrong. Amid the resulting political disarray, the Bush administration is adopting Yogi Berra's famous counsel of patient stubbornness: It ain't over till it's over.

Iraqi politics entered a decisive phase with December's election, which voted in a parliament that will choose the new Iraq's first permanent government. As Yogi might say, this is the ballgame. So far, it hasn't gone the way the United States had hoped.

Iraqis voted for sectarian parties in December, contrary to America's desire that many of them would back secular parties that might transcend religious ties. Then, Sunday, in a further setback, the dominant Shiite bloc known as the United Iraqi Alliance confounded Washington's hopes and nominated as the next prime minister the incumbent, Ibrahim Jafari, whom many Iraqis have criticized as ineffectual. Worst of all, the kingmaker in Jafari's selection was a hotheaded Shiite militia leader and sworn enemy of the United States, Moqtada Sadr. And jockeying for Jafari was the peripatetic Ahmed Chalabi, who hopes to be economic czar in the next government.

But it ain't over till it's over. In a round of political wheeling and dealing that rivals Tammany Hall, Iraq's Kurdish and Sunni Muslim leaders -- backed by the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad -- are demanding a broad government of national unity. And they're playing political hardball with the Shiite coalition -- threatening to form an alternative government if their demands aren't met.

The Kurdish parties, which hold the balance of power, agreed on their demands for a national coalition government at a Jan. 22 meeting in their stronghold of Salahuddin. U.S. officials, who endorse what they're calling the Salahuddin principles, provided me with the minutes of the meeting. It's basically a road map for creating the kind of broad coalition that might stabilize Iraq and, at the same time, justify the vast amount of money and number of lives the Bush administration has expended on Iraq.

The Salahuddin document calls for a government made up of the four biggest parties -- the Shiite alliance, the Kurdish alliance, a coalition of Sunni parties and Ayad Allawi's secular list. The insistence on including Allawi is a direct assault on Sadr's faction, which believes (correctly) that Allawi tried to destroy Sadr and his militia when he was interim prime minister.

To enforce consensus, the Salahuddin document calls for a National Security Council that would include leaders of all the main political factions and, according to the document, "outline policies that reflect national unity and reach decisions based on the principle of accord." The document also echoes the Bush administration's insistence that the leaders of the two key security ministries -- defense and interior -- "must be neutral or accepted by all the parties participating in the government."

"There can be no political stability until all the Iraqi constituencies are included," Kurdish leader Barham Salih explained in a telephone interview from Baghdad on Wednesday. "That's why we as the Kurdish alliance are working on a government that includes these four political blocs."

What matters is that the United States is embracing these principles -- at the risk of alienating its Shiite allies. Zalmay Khalilzad, America's ambassador in Baghdad, explained in a telephone interview this week: "We support the basic ideas behind the Salahuddin principles. The security ministries have to be in the hands of people who have broad support, who are nonsectarian, without ties to militias. We cannot invest huge amounts of money in forces that do not get broad support from Iraqis. They will make their choices. We will make our choices, based on their choices."

As Khalilzad and others count the votes, they think the Shiite alliance, with about 130 seats, is just short of the number it needs to form a new government without the Kurds. And they reckon that the non-Shiite parties could pull together as many as 140 votes -- which technically would be enough to form a government. That gives them real political punch -- and it means that the dickering is far from over. Khalilzad won't rule out the possibility that, as the negotiations continue, Jafari might not survive as the Shiites' choice for prime minister. "I would not exclude the possibility that if they don't agree on programs and people, there may be a new candidate for prime minister," Khalilzad says.

This is politics in the raw: bargaining, brokering, backroom dealing. It's a messy process, especially against the ugly backdrop of new Abu Ghraib photos. But it's good news that the people who want a unified, democratic Iraq are fighting like hell to make it happen -- and that America is warning it won't pay the bills for a government that doesn't put unity first.


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