The Islamist Who Could Run Iraq

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Ibrahim al-Jaafari, leader of Iraq's Dawa party

As the dust settles on post-Saddam's Iraq's first democratic election, the big winners are the Shiite Islamist parties rather than the U.S.-backed interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi. Indeed, Allawi, whose list gathered just 14 percent of the national vote, appears to have conceded that he's unlikely to keep his job, accepting that Iraq's first democratically elected government will be “Islamic.” Instead, Allawi is assuming the role of an opposition figure, warning the Shiite victors against drawing too close to Iran or making religion the basis of government. Still, the likely outcome of the political horse-trading currently under way to apportion power on the basis of election results is likely to be an Iraqi government that is far closer to Iran than what the Bush administration would have preferred.

The frontrunner for the key position of Prime Minister is currently Dr. Ibrahim al-Jaafari, leader of the Shiite Islamist Dawa party. Jaafari is the favorite to win the nomination of the Shiite-dominated United Iraqi Alliance list, assembled under the auspices of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. His key rival for the job, economist Adel Abdel Mahdi of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), agreed to take himself out of the running. In exchange for backing the Dawa man, SCIRI will likely get a candidate of its own choosing into one of two vice presidencies, and also land a couple of plum cabinet jobs. Jaafari still faces a challenge for the Shiite nomination from former Pentagon favorite Ahmed Chalabi, which may be settled by secret ballot among Alliance delegates over the next two days. But Jaafari consistently shows up in Iraqi opinion polls as one of the country's most popular politicians, while Chalabi remains one of the least, and despite engineering a comeback after his fall from grace with Washington by aligning himself with the Shiite list, Chalabi remains an outside bet for the top job.

The Shiite list won 140 seats in the 275-member assembly (slightly more than 50 percent), but in order to choose a government, it needs to assemble the balance of a two-thirds majority by negotiating agreements with other parties — the National Assembly will first pick a president and two vice presidents by two-thirds majority, and that troika will appoint a prime minister, who in turn will pick a cabinet. In practice, of course, the composition of the new government will likely be negotiated before the presidential troika is installed.

Kurds Set a High Price

The Kurdish List, which won 75 seats, is the most attractive coalition partner by measure of political arithmetic, although the Kurds intend to drive a hard bargain: They want their leader, Jalal Talabani, to be president; they want guarantees of a secular state; they want a federal constitution that accepts their de facto independence in the Kurdish provinces in the north; and they want those provinces expanded to include the oil-rich — and fiercely contested — city of Kirkuk. It remains to be seen how, and how much of the Kurdish agenda the Shiites can accommodate. But the incentive to do so is clear.

Jaafari is a “Shiite modernist,” according to an AFP profile carried in the Tehran Times. He has signaled a moderate Islamist position on questions of religion and the state, advocating that Islam be constitutionally recognized as Iraq's official religion and a source (but not the sole source) of legislation, and that no laws will be passed that contradict Islamic values. At the same time, he favors protection of minority religious and ethnic groups, and insists that the first priority of a new government is not only to be as inclusive as possible of those who participated in the election, but also to draw in those who stayed away — almost half the eligible population (42 percent), including the vast majority of Sunnis.

Choosing Sunni Partners

Jaafari has made clear his intention to draw Sunni representatives into government at the highest level — although it remains to be determined exactly which Sunnis, and how they might be drawn in. Until now, the most prominent Sunni representative in government has been acting president Ghazi al-Yawer, whose party won only 6 seats. Shiite leaders have held talks with Yawer's group, but also with representatives of the Association of Muslim Scholars and the Iraqi Islamic Party, Sunni groups that boycotted the election. The combination of the boycott call and intimidation by the insurgents proved remarkably successful in keeping Sunnis away from the polls: In Anbar province, which includes Fallujah and Ramadi, only 2 percent of voters went to the polls, while the turnout in Nineveh, which includes the northern city of Mosul and a significant Kurdish population, was only 17 percent. The result is that the two key Sunni candidates, President Yawer and former foreign minister Adnan Pachachi between them took less than 2 percent of the total vote. The extent of the Sunni stay-away underscores the danger of Sunni alienation entrenching a social base for the insurgency that has continued to rage since election day, and Jaafari and other Shiite leaders are concerned to draw away support from the more extreme element by seeking common ground with Sunni nationalists. That may require drawing in some of the leaders who boycotted the election, rather than relying only on those Sunnis who ran as candidates.

Kirkuk will be an early test for any new political order: The Kurds are pressing to have it included in their domain on the basis that much of its Arab population was settled there after Saddam had forcibly removed a large segment of the Kurdish population. That demand is fiercely resisted by the city’s Arab and ethnic Turk populations. Tensions are running high in the flashpoint city, with neighboring Turkey threatening to intervene to stop a Kurdish takeover — reconciling Kurdish and Sunni interests in Kirkuk at the national level could prove immensely challenging.

Iran Connection

The U.S. is now faced with negotiating a relationship with a new government that reflects limited U.S. influence, and whose leaders enjoy historic ties with Iran. Jaafari's Dawa party, like the SCIRI, spent its exile years based largely in Iran, and while their leaders are careful to distinguish themselves from the Iranian approach to involving the clergy in politics, they nonetheless express a strong kinship with the Iranians. Even the Kurdish presidential nominee, Jalal Talabani, has historically enjoyed good relations with Tehran. While the new government in Iraq is unlikely to mimic Iran's theocracy, it is likely to assume a foreign policy posture of friendship and cooperation with its Persian neighbor — and is unlikely to allow its territory to be used as a base for U.S. forces to confront Iran should relations deteriorate further.

Regardless of the future of U.S.-Iran relations, however, a Jaafari-led government poses a unique set of challenges for Washington in the months ahead. While he has indicated that he has no plans to call for U.S. troops to withdraw from Iraq until such time as Iraqi forces are in a position to maintain security, many of his own supporters are pushing for a timetable for U.S. withdrawal — as are some of the Sunni groups to which he is reaching out. Jaafari has previously been sharply critical of U.S. military actions in Iraq, particularly during last August's confrontation in Najaf with followers of rebel cleric Moqtada Sadr. He has also spoken of drawing representatives of the Sadr movement into government — even Chalabi is making a promise to drop murder charges against Sadr part of his campaign pitch for the job of Prime Minister.

A Jaafari government would likely represent a political package quite different from what the architects of the Iraq war might have envisaged. But a majority of Iraqi voters repudiated the U.S.-backed incumbent, and his successor will not likely incline towards aligning himself with U.S. policies elsewhere in the Middle East, from Israel to Iran. Jaafari may also have positions on questions of government and the economy quite different from those favored by the U.S. Still, the Bush administration has welcomed the election results and vowed to keep its troops there until security is established. The coming months, then, will usher in a new and complex political dance between the somewhat unlikely partnership of the Bush administration and the leaders chosen by the Iraqis it liberated from Saddam.