Iraq After Jaafari

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Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari speaks to reporters at a press conference on Wednesday

More than four months after the election, a shift in the position of incumbent prime minister may finally open the way for the creation of a new Iraqi government. But expectations that the formation of such a government will do much to reverse the country's sectarian drift are diminishing.

Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari announced Thursday that he would refer his nomination for a second term back to the United Iraqi Alliance, the dominant Shi'ite bloc in the new legislature. That opens the way for the Alliance to select a new candidate and break the deadlock created by the refusal of the Kurdish, Sunni and secular blocs, backed by the U.S., to accept a second Jaafari term.

If anything, the very public U.S. intervention against Jaafari slowed rather than expedited his ouster. Washington's pressure, especially Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's trip to Baghdad, appeared to only have hardened Jaafari's resolve to remain in power. The decisive intervention may have been the reported signal from, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Iraq's leading Shi'ite spiritual authority. Sistani had refrained from intervening on the question of the nominee, although he had insisted that the Shi'ite bloc remain united at all costs. But a meeting Wednesday by UN representative Ashraf Qazi with the cleric, who refuses to talk to U.S. officials, may have prompted him to act out of concern over growing sectarian violence.

Sistani may have also been spurred to intervene by ominous talk in Baghdad that a group of secular, once-exiled politicians previously favored by the U.S. were planning to seize power and seek U.S. backing. Former U.S.-appointed Prime Minister Iyad Allawi suggested on Iraqi TV last weekend that Iraqi political leaders, despite being marginalized by the Iraqi electorate, might have to create an extra-constitutional “emergency government.” One of his key allies, acting speaker of parliament Adnan Pachachi, told reporters that such a government would not be based either on the constitution or on the election results — results, he claimed, which didn't necessarily reflect the true will of the Iraqi people . Such a move would likely provoke a violent Shi'ite reaction, if not full-scale civil war, which the moderate Sistani would be anxious to avoid.

For all the focus on Jaafari, his departure isn't likely to be any kind panacea for what ails Iraq. The political deadlock has been based not on personality issues, but on the balance of power both within the Shi'ite camp and between the Shi'ites and other factions. If the Shi'ite bloc drops him, it's unlikely to choose the U.S.-favored Abdul Adel Mahdi as his replacement. Not only is there resentment created by U.S. intervention in the political process, but Adel-Mahdi is the candidate of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), the arch-rival of Jaafari's major backer, the radical cleric Moqtada Sadr. More likely is the emergence of a weak compromise candidate to preside over a fractious government facing divisive issues ranging from revising the constitution and oil revenues to dealing with the militias responsible for growing sectarian strife. Not surprising, then, that Secretary Rice warned Wednesday that violence in Iraq will continue after a new government is formed, and it will be subdued only gradually. What she didn't say, of course, was that she was presenting the best-case scenario.