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Archive for Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Iraq’s new leader bringing change

April 26, 2006

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— 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?" Al-Maliki is not well known outside the 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-Jaafari, people may imagine that little has changed. But that would be a mistake.

The most important fact about al-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 al-Jaafari in office. Tehran issued veiled threats to Iraqi political leaders, in written letters and through emissaries, that if they didn't back al-Jaafari, they would pay a price. In resisting this pressure, the political leaders were standing up for a unified Iraq. To succeed, al-Maliki must now 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, in a telephone interview Monday. He explained that although al-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 al-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, predicted in a telephone interview that "we will witness a great improvement in the security situation." He said al-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 al-Jaafari 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 al-Jaafari 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 al-Jaafari had to go.

Al-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 al-Jaafari as too weak and sectarian. When al-Jaafari was renominated by the Shiite alliance in February, Khalilzad warned, initially in an interview in this column, that the United States wouldn't support a government that didn't 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 al-Jaafari. 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 al-Jaafari 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 al-Jaafari "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. 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. Al-Maliki is a tough Arab nationalist who will work with the United States in the short run, but will want America to withdraw its forces from Iraq.

The challenge for al-Maliki now 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.

- David Ignatius is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group

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