Archive for Wednesday, May 3, 2006

New Iraqi leader gives reason for hope

May 3, 2006

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Iraq finally has a prime minister-designate, Nouri Kamal al-Maliki, but what does that mean?

His is not a well-known face; his reputation is that of a religious Shiite hard-liner. An opponent of Saddam Hussein, he lived many years in exile in Iran and Syria but opposed the U.S. invasion of his country. So is his arrival good news that might lead to a U.S. troop drawdown?

Come read the tea leaves with me. First the good news. Then the reality check.

Yes, Maliki's emergence is good news, because four months of post-election paralysis and the resulting power vacuum had propelled Iraq to the verge of real civil war.

The Shiite political bloc that won the most seats in the December elections had chosen acting prime minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari to run the country for the next four years - by only one vote.

But al-Jaafari was a vague, incoherent leader who had alienated Kurds, Sunnis and many of his fellow Shiites by his failure to consult with politicians from other parties or run a functional government. Al-Jaafari could not get the necessary votes for ratification from Iraq's new assembly, so the political process was frozen.

Ministries had become personal fiefs of corrupt ministers. The Interior Ministry was a haven for Shiite militias who assassinated Sunnis. The radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr became the power behind al-Jaafari.

And al-Jaafari was strongly backed by Iran, which pushed his candidacy furiously because Tehran felt he was malleable. Al-Jaafari's alienation of other factions created a weak government, which gave Iran more leverage over Iraq.

Al-Jaafari stepped down only when the foremost Shiite cleric, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, forcefully intervened. Al-Sistani demanded that Shiites pick a man who could unify Iraq - or else he would stop backing the Shiite bloc.

Al-Jaafari caved, but insisted the new choice must come from his own Dawa Party, a Shiite Islamist organization. Al-Maliki had been al-Jaafari's spokesman.

So is this man any different from his former boss? Can al-Maliki really unify the country? Maybe.

Sunnis feel al-Maliki isn't as close to the feared radical Shiite Muqtada al-Sadr. Nor is al-Maliki as close to Iran.

Moreover, al-Maliki has a very different personality than al-Jaafari, I've been repeatedly told by Iraqis. Over the past few weeks, he took part in negotiations with Sunnis and Kurds over preliminary programs meant to underpin a unity government. Al-Maliki, they say, is forthright and speaks his mind (unlike al-Jaafari). Even if his views don't accord with those of Kurds or Sunnis, they feel they can negotiate with him.

That's the good news. It holds out the prospect that, for the first time, a national unity government can be formed that includes a major bloc of moderate Sunnis.

Whether such a government can quell insurgent violence, or prevent sectarian conflict from worsening, is another question altogether.

My guess is that the violence will worsen, at least in the beginning. Hard-core Sunni insurgents, especially Abu Musab al-Zarqawi with his links to al-Qaida, will try to promote civil war and chaos. They will continue to blow up Shiite civilian targets and to assassinate Sunnis who enter the political arena. A sister and brother of the new Sunni vice president, Tariq al-Hashimi, already have been assassinated.

Sunni insurgents will be hoping that Shiite militias will continue to torture and execute Sunni civilians, thus heightening the tension. Al-Zarqawi and the Baathists are trying to create so much chaos that Iraqis will yearn for a return to Sunni rule.

Al-Maliki's challenge will be to show ordinary Sunnis that they have more to gain from the political process than from tolerating the insurgents. That will require him to push for a legal formula that gives Sunnis a fair share of future Iraqi oil profits - an issue left vague in the new constitution.

It will also require him to restrain Shiite militias from revenge killings against Sunni civilians (I think there is no hope of disbanding the militias at present). In turn, al-Maliki will have to permit Sunnis to form national guard units in their own areas, to protect their people.

In the current climate of violence, sectarian groups will trust only their own kind to defend them. To hold Iraq together, al-Maliki will have to accept a degree of de facto sectarian separation.

Neither U.S. forces nor the new Iraqi army can prevent civil war, nor stop it once it breaks out in full fervor. The herculean task of preventing such a disaster will fall on Iraqi clerics and politicians - especially the untested al-Maliki. How he performs will determine how fast Americans can leave.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

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