Rice Plays Favorites in Baghdad

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During her surprise trip to Baghdad Sunday to help jump-start the faltering formation of a credible Iraqi "national unity" government, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made little secret of Washington's preference for the position of prime minister. When Rice and her traveling partner, British foreign minister Jack Straw, met with acting Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari, whom the U.S. and Great Britain have quietly been lobbying against, the tone was undeniably frosty. At one point during the day, Rice took a thinly veiled swipe at Jaafari, remarking that a future prime minister “has to be able to form a government of national unity. And thus far, Jaafari has not been able to do that.”

Many have argued that the U.S. pressure against Jaafari and his current chief political ally, firebrand cleric Moqtada al Sadr, could actually backfire and bolster their position with a wave of anti-U.S. sentiment. Nonetheless, internal pressures on Jaafari to withdraw are mounting. On the same day that Rice and Straw made their visit, a senior member of the Shi'ite alliance asked Jaafari to step down, making a schism likely within the national assembly's leading voting block. If a faction of the alliance (the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq) backs out of its agreement to vote for Jaafari, as one Western official says they will, a new leading candidate will have to emerge who can get votes from a wide range of political groups.

The pair sent strong signals that they respect the Shi'ite alliance’s right to nominate the prime minister. Just hours before flying out of Iraq, Rice and Straw praised the most influential Shi'ite religious leader, the Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani, for his “wisdom” and emphasized the reality that the name for the top job will come from the “largest voting block,” the Shi'ite alliance. In light of efforts to bring Sunnis into the political process, some Shi'ites were feeling neglected and the diplomats' rhetoric recognized the restraint Shi'ite groups have shown and the compromises they have already made to get this far. Furthermore, the official has seen new signs that Sistani is prodding the alliance to hurry up the process of picking a leader.

One candidate the U.S. seems to prefer is Vice President Adil Abdul Mahdi, and indeed when Rice arrived at his residence, their greeting could not have been more different than her interactions with Jaafari. She practically gushed, "How are you? It’s wonderful to see you."

During a marathon day of meetings, Rice made no secret of her exasperation that factional and sectarian disputes have left the government in limbo three and a half months after the December 15 elections. “I was very direct that the United States and indeed Great Britain and a number of others, but most especially the United States and Great Britain, have put a lot of treasure — and I mean human treasure — on the line to try to give Iraq an opportunity for a democratic government,” Rice said. “I said that we were very proud of what they had achieved to now. But I did explain that given the sacrifice, people expect that process to continue and it can't now get stuck at the most important stage, which is to deliver on the Iraqi people's sacrifice.”

“We're not going to leave here with a government tomorrow," Rice said, stating the obvious. "That's not the purpose of the trip. But I think... probably it was good for all of them to hear it from each of us, from both of us, that people have a sense of drift."

That may well be true, but the continued pressure from U.S. and Great Britain could easily be construed as meddling, which could undermine the very democratic system they are trying to promote. Mahmoud Ottman, a Kurdish member of parliament involved in the negotiations, welcomes U.S. help in moving things along but thinks media reports of the White House and State playing favorites could be “counterproductive." “I like the Americans asking the Iraqis to hurry up,” he told TIME. “But to talk about who will be Prime Minister — they want this one and don’t like this one — I don’t think this is good.”

When asked pointedly by an Iraqi journalist on Monday morning if she was interfering in Iraq’s sovereign affairs, Rice said countries like the U.S. who gave lives so Iraq could be “liberated from a tyrant” have a “right to expect” the formation of a government, but it is up to Iraqis themselves to chose who will take the seats. “We should not and will not say who the prime minister of Iraq should be,” said Rice.