In Iraq's Choice, A Chance For Unity

By David Ignatius
Wednesday, April 26, 2006

So what should the world make of Iraq's new prime minister, Jawad al-Maliki? What chance will his new government have of containing the sectarian violence in Iraq and averting a full-blown civil war?

The first reaction of many outsiders is likely to be, "Jawad who?" Maliki is not well known outside his country, and his election after a four-month impasse may seem anticlimactic. Indeed, since he is a member of the same Islamic faction, the Dawa party, as the incumbent, Ibrahim al-Jafari, people might imagine that little has changed. But that would be a mistake.

The most important fact about Maliki's election is that it's a modest declaration of independence from Iran. The Iranians waged a tough behind-the-scenes campaign to keep Jafari in office. Tehran issued veiled threats to Iraqi political leaders, in written letters and through emissaries, that if they didn't back Jafari, they would pay a price. In resisting this pressure, the political leaders were standing up for a unified Iraq. To succeed, Maliki must mobilize that desire for unity to break the power of the militias and insurgent groups.

"His reputation is as someone who is independent of Iran," explained Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to Baghdad. He explained that although Maliki initially went into exile in Iran, "he felt he was threatened by them" because of his political independence, and later moved to Syria. "He sees himself as an Arab" and an Iraqi nationalist, Khalilzad said.

Iraqi political leaders offered similar endorsements of Maliki. Kurdish leader Barham Salih told me, "This is the opportunity for genuine reconciliation between the communities in Iraq." Haitham al-Husseini, a senior official in the largest Shiite party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), predicted that "we will witness a great improvement in the security situation." He said Maliki's effort to form a unity government "will be supported by all the other big blocs in parliament," including the major Sunni parties.

The Iranians "pressured everyone for Jafari to stay," Khalilzad said. One senior Iraqi official said the gist of Iran's letters was "stick with him, or else." The phrasing was more subtle, including warnings that replacement of Jafari could "create instability" and damage the political prospects of those who opposed Iran's diktat. The decisive blow came from Iraq's Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, who let it be known in the final days that Jafari had to go.

Maliki's selection is something of a victory for Khalilzad, who has been a match for the Iraqis in his wily political wrangling. The American ambassador viewed Jafari as too weak and sectarian. When Jafari was renominated by the Shiite alliance in February, Khalilzad warned, initially in this column, that the United States wouldn't support a government that did not put unity first. Khalilzad helped organize a rival coalition of Kurdish and Sunni politicians that represented 143 seats in parliament, more than the 130 seats of the Shiite alliance that had nominated Jafari. Meanwhile, he began holding marathon meetings with all the Iraqi factions to hammer out the political platform for a unity government.

Khalilzad explained that the logjam on Jafari was broken by two political forces. First, the Shiite alliance realized that the non-Shiites, with their 143 seats, were serious about creating an alternative government. The second was pressure from Sistani to resolve the dispute. The rejection of Jafari "showed great courage on the part of key Shia leaders," Khalilzad said. "It showed that Sistani doesn't take Iranian direction. It showed that [SCIRI leader] Abdul Aziz Hakim doesn't succumb to Iranian pressure. He stood up to Iran. It showed the same thing about the Kurdish leaders."

Nobody should confuse Jawad al-Maliki with George Washington. He's said to be a follower of the Lebanese Shiite leader Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, the original spiritual adviser of Hezbollah, who later left the group in part because he viewed it as too close to Iran. Maliki is a tough Arab nationalist who will work with the United States in the short run but will want the United States to withdraw its forces from Iraq. His authentic Iraqi credentials could help pull the country together.

The challenge for Maliki is to restore order to a place that has become a synonym for death and destruction. His advisers say he may start by focusing on Baghdad -- working to bring the militias and death squads under the control of the Iraqi security forces. The car bombs are still exploding every day, but the Iraqis I talked with this week sense a change in the political wind.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company