Bloodied Iraq Cries Out for Leadership

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Iraqis have that sinking feeling again. After the long lull around the Dec. 15 election, the terrorists have struck with deadly effect, killing nearly 150 people in two bombings on Thursday alone. For a few weeks, many Iraqis had felt able to lower their guard just a bit—parks, playgrounds, teahouses and restaurants were full of families eager to take advantage of the all-too-short winter. Now, those public places will again be deserted as people retreat fearfully to their homes.

As before, the terrorists' goal is to violently undo any gains from Iraq's tortured political process. Whether or not they succceed depends on the response from Iraq's elected leaders. After nearly three years of violence, the country desperately needs its politicians to come up with new ideas for dealing with the raging insurgency. Alas, there's litttle room for optimism on that a score. As the race to be Iraq's prime minister rounds the final bend, the leaders are exactly the same group that jockeyed for the post after the first post-Saddam election: the incumbent, Ibrahim al-Jafaari; Iran's preferred candidate, Adil Abdul-Mahdi; current American favorite Iyad Allawi; and, the darkest of dark horses, one-time Pentagon favorite Ahmed Chalabi. Asked to handicap the race last January, a leading Iraqi political scientist was reminded of a bumper sticker from an old U.S. Presidential campaign: “Thank God,” said Wamid Nadhmi, “that only one of them will become prime minister.”

Nadhmi was gloomy because he knew that all four were lacking in vision and political skills. “None of them is a statesman—a Mandela or a Gandhi,” he told me. “They are all small, ordinary men.”

It is pointless to wish for a statesman, but those of us who cover the Iraq story know that no country has needed a Mandela or a Gandhi more than Iraq. Coming on three years since the fall of Saddam, the country is deeply and violently divided along sectarian lines. This week's bombings are a terrible reminder that without a unifying, healing political figure, Iraq's problems will only deepen, disrupting the stability of the Middle East and complicating any White House plans for military disengagement. And Iraqi political observers warn that the longer they are poorly ruled by “small, ordinary men,” the more their fellow countrymen will long for the return of a Saddam-like tough guy. When statesmen are hard to find, strongmen tend to thrive.

None of the four leading candidates has shown the ability to become a new Saddam, but their credentials make dismal reading.

Jafaari's spell as prime minister yielded no real change in the political climate. The urbane and soft-spoken physician did little to heal the sectarian wounds tearing apart Iraqi society. After the Sunni boycott of last January's vote, Jafaari—prompted by the U.S.—brought some Sunni leaders into the consultation process over the new Iraqi constitution. But he looked away as his ruling Shi'ite-Kurdish coalition ignored most Sunni demands, and his security forces constantly harassed the few Sunni leaders who were willing to negotiate. Administratively, Jafaari's government failed on every front—security, the economy, jobs, infrastructure. His only success was in the mending of relations with Iraq's old enemy (and Jafaari's longtime backer) Iran.

If Abdul-Mahdi succeeds Jafaari, don't expect any real change. He has switched directions so many times in his career, it's hard to know which way he's going. He has been a Communist, a Ba'athist and a liberal-secular democrat; these days, he represents the Shi'ite-fundamentalist Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, which, like Jafaari's Dawa Party, is beholden to Tehran. Halfway through last year, Mahdi told TIME he was about to bolt from SCIRI and form his own party. He changed his mind—likely because he knows he has no grassroots support or street cred of his own. As prime minister, he would be little more than a puppet in the hand of Iranian ayatollahs, and unlikely to do more than Jafaari to accommodate the Sunnis.

Allawi, Washington's idea of a secular alternative to Jafaari and Mahdi, is not exactly an inspiring figure, either. During his brief spell as Prime Minister last year, he showed little capacity for administration and no political vision beyond his own survival. He failed even to rally like-minded secular parties. Despite the liberal use of state resources during the election of campaign, he was soundly defeated last January; his vote base doesn't seem to have grown in the recent election, either.

The only one of the four with even less credibility than Allawi is Chalabi. While claiming to be a secular politician, he went into last January's election as a member of the Shi'ite coalition, as an ally of the radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. This time around, he contested the election on his own—and appears to have failed to win a single seat outright. The elections proved what most journalists have suspected all along: that Chalabi is one of Iraq's most despised political figures. Only in the surreal world of Iraqi politics would such a man even be considered a potential prime minister.

In the next few weeks or months, one of these men will be placed in charge of Iraq's destiny. For those of us who have covered the Iraq story since the fall of Saddam, that is not a reassuring thought.