New Iraqi Unity Coalition Imperils Shiites' Prime Minister Pick

By Nelson Hernandez
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 19, 2006

BAGHDAD, Feb. 18 -- A handful of Iraqi political parties have met in recent days to discuss a government that would unite the country's disparate ethnic and sectarian groups, a step that could result in an attempt to defeat the ruling Shiite coalition's nominee for prime minister.

The choice of incumbent Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari, last week to serve a four-year term in Iraq's most powerful office appeared to be a fait accompli a few days ago. Jafari had the backing of the United Iraqi Alliance, the coalition of Shiite religious parties that won the largest share of seats in parliamentary elections in December and that was expected to have enough votes to put its candidate in office.

But since the Shiites voted to choose Jafari, representatives from Kurdish, Sunni Arab and secular parties that include multiple factions said they had met to discuss a broad-based coalition that could potentially overpower the Shiite candidate. The politicians, as well as Western officials, said in interviews that the race for prime minister was far from over.

"It is too early to say who will be the president or the prime minister or anything else," said Ibrahim Janabi, a member of the secular National Iraqi List. "I think this will take time."

"We are exploring all possibilities," said Barham Saleh, a leader of the Kurdish alliance of parties, in a telephone interview just before he headed back into a meeting with other parties on Saturday.

The politicians received another reminder Saturday of how important the outcome is. A roadside bomb killed an American soldier on patrol in Baghdad, U.S. military authorities said in a statement, and at least 11 Iraqis were killed in other shootings and bombings, according to wire reports. In addition, two Macedonian contractors were reported kidnapped as they drove along a road in southern Iraq on Thursday.

Jafari, who has been called ineffectual since he took over a transitional government in May, faced challenges almost immediately following his nomination to head the country's first full-term government since the ouster of President Saddam Hussein nearly three years ago. Sunni Arab and secular parties -- never great friends of Jafari -- had been expected to object, but then the Shiites' powerful allies in the Kurdistan Coalition began to express discontent.

The Kurds have clashed with Jafari over control of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, which Kurdish leaders contend should be a part of their largely autonomous northern region. In recent days, they have demanded that secular parties be given a role in the new government. This is opposed by Moqtada Sadr, the popular, radical Shiite cleric who was largely responsible for engineering Jafari's victory.

In a rare interview Saturday night on al-Jazeera television, Sadr repeated his long-standing demand that U.S. and allied troops withdraw from Iraqi soil, and he said he opposed the breakup of the country along ethnic and sectarian lines. He did not appear to be willing to assent to the Kurds' demands -- either for Kirkuk or their own independent region.

"The problem with Kirkuk is the presence of oil in it," he said. "It should be in the ownership of all Iraqis. No one has the right to demand Kirkuk."

U.S. officials, meanwhile, have said they favor a government that would bring all of Iraq's ethnic and secular groups together under competent ministers, regardless of who leads it.

"The U.S. has worked with Jafari for some time. He's not an enemy of the United States," a Western diplomat said.

But he added that "the whole power balance has changed."

Among the changes, the diplomat noted, is the diminished power of the Shiite alliance since elections in January 2005. Sunni Arabs, who largely boycotted those elections, made a strong showing in the December vote.

At least two major roadblocks stand in the way of assembling a coalition that could produce enough votes to challenge Jafari.

The first is the old antipathy between the Sunni Arabs and the Kurds, who bitterly remember the oppression suffered under Hussein's Sunni-dominated dictatorship. The second is that any coalition capable of amassing the two-thirds majority necessary to have a viable candidate for prime minister would need to include at least some Shiite parties.

Saleh Mutlak, head of the Iraqi National Dialogue Front, a Sunni Arab group, said he and others were attempting to woo the Fadhila Party, a smaller party within the United Iraqi Alliance, and other independent members of the Shiite coalition.

"I don't think that we should make it as a fact that the prime minister should be Shiite," Mutlak said. "We are thinking of bringing somebody who has really nationalist, Iraqi tendencies," such as Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite who earned a reputation for toughness as Jafari's predecessor.

The one danger, Mutlak acknowledged, is that the Shiite parties would refuse to accept political defeat and would mobilize their militias for civil war. Sadr, for instance, has a large militia that waged two sustained uprisings against U.S. and Iraqi forces when Allawi was interim prime minister

"This time I think we have to take the risk and be brave enough to face the situation," Mutlak said. "Unless we do it, Iraq is going to die."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company