Behind the U.S.-Shi'ite Political Clash

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No matter how bad the sectarian violence gets in Iraq, politicians in Washington love to tout the flowering of democracy in Saddam Hussein's former dictatorship. But not all the fruits of Iraqi democracy are to Washington's taste — the Bush Administration has reportedly told the Shi'ite bloc that dominates Iraq's elected legislature that President Bush opposes its nomination of Ibrahim al-Jaafari to a second term as Prime Minister.

Such revelations are only the latest sign that the U.S. has reservations about leaving real power in the hands of  Iraq's elected government. Even as it tries to cajole the elected leaders to agree on a national unity government, the U.S. is engaged in ongoing talks with commanders of the Sunni insurgency and plans talks on the future of Iraq with Iran, which retains significant influence over the main Shi'ite parties. Now it appears Washington has also reached out to Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani — Iraq's leading Shi'ite clerical authority and the country's most influential figure — for support in its effort to block Jaafari, though  Sistani has consistently refused, since the fall of Saddam, to meet with U.S. officials.   

Such multi-pronged diplomacy may be necessary to stabilize Iraq, but wooing any one party inevitably alienates another. When the U.S. talks to the insurgents and calls for greater Sunni share of power, Shi'ite leaders accuse Washington of rewarding terrorism; when it moves to talk with Tehran, the Sunnis in Iraq and in friendly Arab capitals are incensed at the idea of Iran's influence in Iraq being formalized. As long as U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad is able to balance the fallout and bruised feelings, the strategy may appear viable. But the Shi'ites constitute almost two thirds of Iraq's population, and if their mounting anger at the U.S. translates into a challenge on the streets, the U.S. presence in Iraq may become untenable.

The U.S. campaign against Jaafari has the backing of both the Kurds and Sunnis, who believe he is either unwilling or unable to rein in Shi'ite militias and would prefer to see the job go to Jaafari's rival for the Shi'ite nomination, Adel Abdel Mahdi of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq . It's not as if Jaafari was even the unanimous choice of the Shi'ite bloc — he won the nomination by only one vote, and then only because of the backing of radical cleric and militia leader Moqtada Sadr. But once the Kurds and Americans went public with demands for his ouster, the Shi'ite alliance, not surprisingly, dug in its heels. 

Mindful of Sunni concerns and the danger of sectarian warfare, the U.S. has begun to act against Shi'ite militias, particularly those accused of abuses. But the Shi'ite leaders see the militias as their best defense against the Sunni insurgents, and are not in any mood to disband them. In the wake of last weekend's controversial joint U.S.-Iraqi hostage rescue, Shi'ite politicians briefly broke off talks over a new government; they claimed the raid was a massacre of innocent civilians praying at a mosque, while the U.S. and Iraqi commanders said it wasn't a mosque at all, but the home of violent militias. Many Shi'ite leaders upped their anti-U.S. rhetoric, demanding that the Iraqi government be put in charge of security operations still run by the U.S. And fighters of Sadr's Mehdi army, whose men were killed in Sunday's clash, warned darkly that they were ready, once again, to fight the Americans.

In this climate, seeking Sistani's support for slapping down the Shi'ite coalition may be a risky gambit. The Ayatollah is leery of cooperating with the U.S. in the best of times, and if he perceives its objective is to limit the Shi'ites power won at the ballot box, Sistani may push back. It was, after all, pressure from the Ayatollah that originally forced the U.S. to abandon plans to handpick an Iraqi government and instead allow it to be chosen in a democratic election.  And if the Shi'ite political leaders are beginning to turn on the U.S., then Washington may arrive at its planned talks with Tehran needing Iran's help more than it would ever like to admit.