Viewpoint: The Trouble with Ousting Jaafari

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The visit of Condi Rice and Jack Straw to Baghdad may have sounded the death knell on the candidacy of Ibrahim Jaafari for a second term as prime minister. Rice made clear the U.S. disdain for a second Jaafari term, saying Iraq needed a leader who could build a national unity coalition, which the incumbent had failed to do. With the Kurds and Sunnis already committed to reject Jaafari's nomination, the Rice visit seemed to embolden even the prime minister's Shi'ite rivals: For the first time, the largest faction of Jaafari's Shi'ite alliance, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), called on him to quit. (Should Jaafari accede, SCIRI's own Adel Abdul-Mahdi is in pole position to replace him as the candidate of the Shi'ite list.)

Jaafari, who has complained of Western meddling, could of course stay on: He has the backing of the Shi'ite populist Moqtada Sadr, whose Mehdi Army is one of the most powerful militias in Iraq. The support of Sadr's parliamentary delegation had given Jaafari victory over Abdul Mahdi by a margin of one vote in the list's internal election of a candidate for prime minister. But faced with the combined opposition of the Kurds, the Sunnis, his Shi'ite rivals and the U.S. (which also controls the Iraqi security forces), Jaafari will struggle to create a working government.

Ousting Jaafari, however, won't necessarily improve the prospects for creating a unity government that reverses the trend towards civil war. Here's why the problems cited by Jaafari's critics may persist even if he is replaced, particularly by Abdul-Mahdi, who appears to now enjoy U.S. backing:

  • The Sunnis oppose Jaafari because he is perceived as unwilling to rein in the sectarian thuggery of the Shiite militias—both Sadr's Mehdi Army, and the SCIRI-affiliated Badr Brigade. The U.S. correctly perceived that bringing the Sunnis on board and quelling their insurgency requires clamping down on the Shi'ite militias, but it's not clear that Abdul-Mahdi would prove more likely to achieve this, particularly given his own party's connections to one of the primary offenders. Indeed, the Shi'ite parties, including SCIRI, point to the Sunni insurgency and the failure of the U.S. and Iraqi forces to protect Shi'ites from terror attacks as the reason they need their militias. With even ordinary citizens now arming themselves to protect their neighborhoods, moves to disarm any one militia may be treated as a sectarian attack on the ability of its community to protect itself.

  • The Kurds' primary problem with Jaafari may be less his sectarian or Islamist inclinations, than his refusal to back their claim on the oil city of Kirkuk—and his willingness to consort with Turkey to prevent the emergence of a viable Kurdish entity with de facto independence. Again, Jaafari's position on this issue is shared by the Sunnis and the more nationalist (as opposed to Iran-inclined) Shi'ites.

  • Jaafari's Shi'ite rivals are challenging him as part of a power play, and if he is ousted and replaced by Abdul Mahdi, it's safe bet that the prime minister's allies, such as the Sadr movement, will look to push back against the new government and its U.S. and British backers.

  • For the U.S., Jaafari's failure to achieve a unity government also represents an opportunity to seek a friendlier face in the top job of Iraq's new government, although it's far from clear that Abdul Mahdi is any less beholden to Iran than Jaafari is.

    Although it's not yet a done deal, getting rid of Jaafari may yet prove to be the easy part. It will certainly take a lot more than changing the nominee for prime minister to forge a strong government of national unity in an Iraq where most political leaders say they want to avoid a civil war, yet seem incapable of making the compromises required for success.