Once again, the Bush administration has been unpleasantly surprised by the results of Mideast elections - this time in Iraq.
Two months after Iraq's Dec. 15 ballot, Iraqi politicians are still far, far from forming a government. And the political kingmaker in Baghdad - the force behind the new prime minister-designate Ibrahim al-Jaafari - has turned out to be a radical anti-American cleric. The cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr, seeks an Islamic state, and his militia has killed many Americans. He has been actively courting Syria and Iran.
This election outcome was not in the White House game plan. America's ability to withdraw troops from Iraq will depend on whether a new, four-year government can prevent the country from sliding further toward chaos. If the government is weak, the country - along with its U.S.-trained army - is likely to collapse.
U.S. officials mistakenly believed Iraqi secular parties would do well in the elections. As a fallback, they hoped the Shiite religious bloc - the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) - which won the most seats, would nominate the capable Adel Abdul-Mahdi for prime minister. Mahdi appeared to have broad Shiite support.
Instead, the UIA nominated the weak current prime minister, al-Jaafari. His victory was due to the machinations of al-Sadr, who controls more than 30 seats in the assembly. Al-Sadr's minions phoned members of the UIA before the nomination vote and threatened civil war if Mahdi won. In the end, al-Jaafari triumphed by a single vote.
Now the questions are: Can al-Jaafari govern? And what will be the influence of al-Sadr? The son of a revered ayatollah who was murdered by Saddam, al-Sadr trades on the reverence for his father, and wins support from the poor and criminal elements in Baghdad.
I've seen him up close in Iraq; he is pouty, wild-eyed and often incoherent. In April 2003, his thugs murdered the moderate Shiite cleric Abdulmajid al-Khoei, son of a grand ayatollah and a potential rival to al-Sadr. Shiite clerics told me how al-Sadr's militia attacks those who criticize him. In 2003, his men even threatened the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, although al-Sadr and al-Sistani have since made an uneasy peace.
Al-Sadr recently visited Syria and Iran; presumably Tehran encouraged him to back al-Jaafari. A weak Iraqi prime minister means more Iraqi chaos; this serves Iranian interests by making trouble for the United States.
A weak Iraq also means less chance of pulling Sunnis into a government of national unity that might undercut the insurgency and enable U.S. forces to leave sooner. Meantime, al-Sadr's calls for a quick U.S. exit from Iraq are likely to stir up more violence against U.S. troops.
Is there a way out of the al-Sadr/al-Jaafari trap? Some in Baghdad hope the Shiite bloc will split, with backers of Mahdi joining Kurds and Sunnis in forming a superbloc that chooses a new candidate for prime minister. I doubt this will happen; despite their unhappiness with al-Jaafari, Shiites know that if their bloc splits they will lose the political strength that comes with being a majority.
The hope for blocking al-Sadr lies less with moderate Shiites than with the political skills of the Kurds.
Kurdish leaders - often accused of wanting to separate from Iraq - seek to hold the country together. Toward this end, they are trying to organize a government of national unity that will bring Sunnis in, contain al-Sadr, and force al-Jaafari to share power.
Kurdish leader Barham Salih outlined the plan to me in an interview in Davos at the World Economic Forum. "It's ironic," he said, "that the Kurds are emerging as the unifiers of the country. But this unity can't be obtained without inclusivity."
Salih told me the Kurds will insist that a national unity government include the UIA, the Kurds, Sunni groupings, and the party of Iyad Allawi, a secular Shiite and former interim prime minister. While in office, Allawi sent troops to put down al-Sadr's militia.
Al-Jaafari - and all factions - would be required to sign on to a platform meant to hold the country together. This would include a plank that required the Interior Ministry to be run by professionals, not Shiite militias that send out death squads to kill Sunnis. It would set up a National Security Council to supervise the Interior and Defense ministries.
Last Thursday, Kurdish and Sunni factions and Allawi - with U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad present - met to signal Jaafari and al-Sadr that they must bargain. Whether the Kurds can pull off the deal and thwart al-Sadr will be known in the next few weeks. The fate of Bush policy in Iraq rests on these complex Iraqi political turns.