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TIME TO QUIT
by Amir Taheri
New York Post
March 4, 2006

March 4, 2006 -- THE Shiite Alliance in Iraq insists that the new parliament approve Ibrahim al-Jaafari, the incumbent prime minister, as head of a new government.

Strictly legally speaking, there is nothing wrong with that. Having won 128 of the 275 seats, the Shiite Alliance is the largest bloc in the new parliament. And the constitution grants the right to nominate the head of government to the bloc with the biggest share of seats.

But nominating does not mean imposing - the parliament has the final word on the head of government and on each Cabinet post. And, by all indications, al-Jaafari is not the popular choice of the new parliament.

This week's comment by Muwaffaq al-Ruba'i, al-Jaafari's spokesman, that formation of the Cabinet could take "many months" is irresponsible, to say the least. Blocking the political process for partisan considerations could do great damage to Iraq's new democracy.

Al-Jaafari leads one wing of the Dawa party, an Islamist movement that, after decades of internal feuding, declared reunification two years ago in what many saw as a purely tactical ploy.

It is not easy to assess Dawa's exact electoral strength; the party contested the election in a coalition with a dozen-plus parties and groups. But most polls indicate that, on its own, Dawa wouldn't pull more than 12 percent.

Within the alliance, Al-Jaafari's nomination was approved by 64 votes - against 63 votes for his chief rival, Adel Abdul-Mahdi.

Dawa holds just 30 of the alliance's 128 seats; the rest of the votes for al-Jaafari came from the Fadhila (Virtue) party, with 20 seats, and the group around the pro-Iranian militia maverick Muqtada al-Sadr.

The largest component of the alliance, the Supreme Council of Islamic Revolution in Iraq, voted for Abdul-Mahdi.

In short, al-Jaafari represents a minority within the Shiite constituency. It is hard to see how someone with such a limited base could lead a broad national coalition.

Worse still, al-Jaafari's surprise return seems to have been caused, at least in part, by his rivalry with Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, a junior cleric who heads the Shiite Alliance. Al-Jaafari reportedly said he wouldn't stand for premiership if al-Hakim would hand him the presidency of the alliance. Personal ambition is no sin, but Iraq's new democracy is too fragile to let career calculations determine the big picture.

Al-Jaafari's opponents describe his stewardship of Iraq's affairs over the last 10 month as lackluster to disastrous.

Yet the return of the Arab Sunnis to the political mainstream and their acceptance of the new democratic rules are, at least in part, the fruits of much labor on al-Jaafari's part. He must also be credited with having outmaneuvered the Arab League states, forcing them to accept the new Iraq as a reality. It was also during al-Jaafari's premiership that agreement on forgiving most of Iraq's foreign debt was finalized.

Also unfair is the claim that al-Jaafari is somehow "Tehran's man." Yes, he spent part of his long exile in Iran, but his British period was even longer. It is also hard to see how al-Jaafari could be "Tehran's man" while being one of the favored candidates of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. Far from being "Tehran's man" al-Jaafari is an Iraqi patriot with a strong record of fighting the Saddamite regime.

All in all, al-Jaafari's record as prime minister could get an average mark. And that, under the circumstances, is not bad at all.

But al-Jaafari would do Iraq a greater service if he were to drop out of this race.

First of all, the new political landscape, which includes Arab Sunni parties for the first time, could do with a new face at the center. To many Sunnis, al-Jaafari is the face of their confusion and humiliation in the time when they could not accept the death of the old system and feared the new one.

Second, he is identified with a number of politics that will not work in the new Iraq. He still clings to economic ideas suitable for a rentier state rather than a modern economy open to global currents. Al-Jaafari presents his economic policy under the old label of a "welfare state" - though his performance in practice has been closer to pork-barrel politics.

Third, he has managed to win the distrust of both those who wanted thorough de-Ba'athification and those who who want all but a few dozen ex-Ba'athists to be reintegrated into the new system.

Finally, al-Jaafari has been ambivalent about the need to disarm and dissolve the various militias, including several Shiite ones, whose presence is a permanent challenge to the authority of the new Iraqi army and police.

One reason for al-Jaafari's position on this issue is his increasing reliance on al-Sadr's notorious Mahdi Army, whose links with Iran and the Lebanese Hezbollah anger most Iraqis.

Fortunately, the new Iraqi constitution provides adequate mechanisms for a broader debate on the issue of who should head the government.

There is some pressure, part of it coming from Washington, to speed up the formation of the new government. Iraqis, however, should take their time, but certainly not months, and make sure that they form a government based on a genuine national consensus rather than narrow, sectarian calculations.

Because the new government will last for four years, it is important that it be based on a policy package backed by the broadest possible forces in the new Iraq.

Iranian author Amir Taheri is a member of Benador Associates.

 

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