Al-Jafari Fights Back

By Jim Hoagland
Thursday, March 16, 2006

Adversity and the telephone bring out the best in Ibrahim al-Jafari, Iraq's embattled prime minister.

Jafari is fighting back with surprising force to save his job. And shouting down the line from Baghdad as U.S. helicopters patrol noisily over his residence makes the usually nebulous Iraqi leader focused and concise. Edgy, even.

He needs all the edge he can get as Iraqis confront sectarian street warfare, wavering U.S. support, and a campaign by Kurdish and Sunni political parties to deny Jafari and his Shiite supporters a leadership post that he feels is rightfully his.

The fight over Jafari's political fate and the formation of a new government will probably last another month, the physician told me as we talked, through an interpreter, for an hour on Tuesday as President Bush was delivering his latest Iraq policy speech.

Instead of the will-o'-the-wisp poetry and evasive oratory that I heard from Jafari in previous encounters, he delivered a honed summary of a limited future military role for U.S. forces, an offer for reconciliation with Jalal Talabani -- the Kurdish president of Iraq, who opposes Jafari's reelection -- and a defense of his efforts to co-opt radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr into the political process.

Much of the fight over Jafari is in fact a fight over Sadr, whom U.S. authorities vowed to "kill or capture" in a military assault on Najaf in August 2004. They did neither. Sadr's political party and militia have become stronger -- and more responsible, claims Jafari, who opposed the 2004 assault on Sadr. That contention is rejected by U.S. officials.

Jafari, once acceptable to the Bush administration, the Kurds and other Iraqis as the lowest common denominator in Iraqi politics, has become suspect because of his alliance with Sadr and a perception of ineffective governance that has spread since Jafari became interim prime minister last April. He dismisses both concerns.

"It is very important to include all of the political parties in the process," Jafari said. "I worked with the Sadrists, as I did with Sunni parties that were taking up the rifle. The Sadrists now have a stake in creating a stable environment." Sadr's appeals for calm this week after provocative attacks on his supporters in Baghdad helped defuse a dangerous situation, Jafari continued.

"The target of the terrorists is the political process itself. But our forces have been able to keep things from going out of control" despite the recent attacks on Shiite mosques and neighborhoods aimed at sparking widespread intercommunal violence. "We contained it, with the multinational coalition forces playing a supporting role," Jafari said.

As Bush was outlining his plans to have newly trained Iraqi security forces take over control of most of Iraq's territory by year's end, Jafari was explaining to me his vision of how that will work: "We will still need to be able to call on the multinational forces for help, particularly air cover, in exceptional cases, such as the enemy using very large-caliber weapons or weapons that the Iraqi army does not possess. Then we would ask for help."

He was succinct as well when I asked about Talabani's efforts to get him to step aside in favor of fellow Shiite Adel Abdul Mahdi, a leader in the Iranian-influenced Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq. Jafari defeated Mahdi -- who supported the 2004 action against Sadr -- by a single ballot in a vote by the alliance of Shiite parties that won the right to name the next prime minister in December's parliamentary elections.

No deal is Jafari's answer. He said he made that clear in a friendly private meeting with Talabani on Sunday. "I said I would of course follow the constitution on the issues of federalism and of what happens to Kirkuk, issues that concern some. Working together we have accomplished a lot, despite what is said, and we can accomplish more in the future."

The pros and cons of Jafari's staying on, like detailed arguments over federalism and Kirkuk, lie beyond the scope of this column. What came through clearly to me above the long-distance whump-whump of helicopter blades is that an inordinate fear of Sadr should not be the decisive factor for Washington or the Kurds in this leadership decision.

Iraqis are sorting out the Sadr factor for themselves, and much more besides. This is a moment for Americans to resist the compulsion to micromanage Iraq's complex, opaque politics. That compulsion has already helped produce a sufficient supply of devastating consequences.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company