Can a Different Iraqi Leader Stop the Violence?

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Sometime in the next day or two, the U.S. and Great Britain, along with the Kurds and the Sunnis, may get their wish — Iraq's Shi'ites could deny Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari a second term in office, enabling the country finally, four months after its most recent election, to form a government. But as Iraq lurches ever more dangerously into a vortex of sectarian and insurgent violence, the idea that simply replacing the incumbent will magically forge a national consensus and reverse Iraq's morbid slide may be more wishful thinking.

Jaafari's Sunni detractors complain that he refused to rein in Shi'ite militias terrorizing their communities, while the Kurds don't like the fact that he refused to back their territorial claim on the mixed oil-rich city of Kirkuk. But these positions were not personal whims of Jaafari's so much as a reflection of the demands of his base in the majority Shi'ite community. And by nixing Jaafari, the dominant Shi'ite bloc will simply get to nominate another candidate under pressure from his political base.

The U.S. and Britain hope that the man chosen will be current deputy president Adel Abdul-Mahdi of the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), who was edged out by a single vote in the Shi'ite bloc's internal ballot that nominated Jaafari. But if Jaafari's backers don't get to have their man, there are reasons to expect that Abdul-Mahdi's won't gets theirs, either.

First, there's growing resentment among Shi'ite leaders at the perceived Western "meddling" in Iraq's politics, which may make the recent feting of Abdul Mahdi by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw during their Baghdad visit something of a kiss of death. More importantly, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, to whom the Shi'ite bloc turned for guidance on resolving the standoff, has insisted that it resolve the issue both speedily and unanimously. That demand will likely translate into a compromise candidate, and Abdul-Mahdi doesn't necessarily fit that bill: not only has he come out publicly against Jaafari, but Jaafari's principal backer is radical cleric Moqtada Sadr, whose militia and political organization are at loggerheads with Abdul-Mahdi's SCIRI. In the end, the Shi'ites may be inclined to find a more neutral candidate not affiliated with either faction — a candidate who would, in point of fact, start out even weaker than Jaafari.

And a weak prime minister is precisely what the U.S. doesn't want now. After all, Washington has made clear that the first priority of a new government should be taking down the militias, with Sadr's Mehdi Army and the SCIRI-affiliated Badr brigade the focus of U.S. military action in recent months. But disarming these groups won't be any easier for a new prime minister than it was for Jaafari, because the basic dynamic won't have changed.

Just as the Sunni politicians complain that their community is under attack from Shi'ite militias operating with a wink and a nod from Jaafari's government, so the main Shi'ite parties complain that their people are under daily terror attacks by Sunni insurgents who, they claim, are encouraged by the positions of the main Sunni political parties. Moreover, the Shi'ites claim that U.S. pressure on them to do more to accommodate the Sunnis further emboldens those insurgents. And the failure of Coalition and Iraqi security forces to protect Shi'ite communities from terror attacks leads many Shi'ites to see the militias as their only protection. If anything, the worsening trend of sectarian violence during the months that the politicians have wrangled over a new government has only hardened each constituency's conviction about the necessity of the militias. It's a vicious cycle, and one that no Iraqi prime minister, whether the U.S. likes him or not, will easily overcome.