DAMASCUS - The election of Ibrahim Jaafari within
the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) to become the
full-term prime minister of Iraq re-establishes
Shi'ite politicians who are products of Islamic
parties at the height of power in the post-Saddam
Hussein era. At the same time, Jaafari has the
daunting task of appeasing the different factions
in Iraq, including the US.
victory of 64 votes, as opposed to Vice President
Adel Abdul Mehdi's 63, was made possible through
the support of the young rebel leader Muqtada
al-Sadr, who is popular in the Shi'ite community
and an opponent of Mehdi and his Supreme Council
the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). The choice
of Jaafari raises a number of questions for Iraq.
Who won the new elections? Was it Iran, or the
Americans, or Syria? Apparently, anybody but the
West, and particularly the United States, was
panicking at the thought of bringing the SCIRI to
power in Iraq, because of its close connections to Iran and its
declared desire to carve an autonomous Shi'ite
district in southern Iraq. In this aspect, the
Americans got what they wanted. The US had earlier
persuaded the Sunnis to run for the National
Assembly, thereby reducing the number of votes
that went to the UIA.
They made sure that
in order for the Iran-backed Shi'ites to form any
government, they would have to do so with the
Sunnis, since they would not get a majority
two-thirds vote to create a cabinet on their own,
as was the case in the 2005 polls.
Washington would certainly have preferred a
secular Shi'ite for the job of prime minister, but
given the limited choice of candidates, Jaafari
was the best of all evils for the Americans.
Although he heads the Islamic Da'wa Party, which
also has connections to Iran, Da'wa is far more
independent than the SCIRI from Iranian influence.
The SCIRI, after all, was created by Iran
in the 1980s, while Da'wa was created by Iraqis
inside Iraq in the 1960s. The London branch of
Da'wa that Jaafari headed during his exile under
Saddam was more independent than the Tehran-branch
of his party. Da'wa did not fight against its own
countrymen during the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-88
as the SCIRI had done when it fought with the
Iranian army, nor does it receive any training or
money from Iran.
Jaafari is simply not an
Iranian stooge, like the SCIRI's Abdul Aziz
al-Hakim, who was created by the mullahs of Tehran
and continues to be financed by them. Jaafari does
not want to create a Shi'ite regime in southern
Iraq, an idea vigorously backed by Hakim.
Alarming to the Americans, however, will be
Jaafari's alliance with Muqtada, a man who led two
rebellions against the US in 2004 and who is one
of the loudest anti-American voices in Shi'ite Iraq.
The Kurds and the US, who are not pleased by Jaafari's
alliance with Muqtada, have articulated a
demand that the new premier should include former
prime minister Iyad Allawi in the new government,
possibly as minister of the interior.
This has been curtly refused by Muqtada,
who hates Allawi for his secularism,
pro-Americanism and the fact that Allawi ordered a
massive air raid on Muqtada's movement when
serving as prime minister in 2004, pledging at the
time to crush Muqtada and his insurgency.
The Kurds, and President Jalal Talabani,
have threatened to boycott Jaafari's new cabinet
if it does not include Allawi, making the job all
the more difficult for the new premier. He cannot
say "yes" because this would anger the man who
tipped the elections in his favor. Angering
Muqtada means also angering the urban poor that
support him, especially the youth. Appeasing
Muqtada means upsetting the Americans and
Iran is not too pleased at the
outcome. It is probably furious, however, at the
last-minute backing that Jaafari got from Muqtada.
After all, Muqtada had visited Iran in January and
pledged full cooperation with Tehran. He made the
Iranians believe he would back their man, Mehdi,
in the UIA's elections. Muqtada then back-stabbed
the Iranians, ending a very temporary honeymoon,
and helped break Iranian ambitions by throwing
his full weight behind Jaafari.
Muqtada's visit to Syria, shortly before
the elections, further complicates the situation.
Did Syria push Muqtada in secret to back Jaafari
and abandon Mehdi, despite Damascus' massive need
for Iranian support, because it did not want the
SCIRI in power?
The SCIRI would
mean clerical rule in neighboring Baghdad, and
autonomy for the Shi'ites, something the Syrians do
not want. Officially, Syria remains committed to
the Iranians and cannot say "no" to Tehran and
President Mahmud Ahmadinejad. After all, the
controversial president has been very good to
Damascus since coming to power in 2005, and
crossing him at such a stage would seem unwise for
a regime that is in much need for regional allies
- especially strong ones such as Iran.
In behind-the-scene talks between Muqtada and
Syria, it is highly possible that Syria was the one
to push the rebel cleric into abandoning Iran
and obstructing the ambitions of the SCIRI. By
playing this game, the Syrians believe they are
courting Muqtada, a strongman in Shi'ite politics,
yet also indirectly courting the Americans by
obstructing Iran's choice for the premiership.
Jaafari, after all, is a former ally of
Syria. So is Talabani, who wants to impose Allawi
on Jaafari. He has been working since last summer
to restore Allawi to power in Iraq, seeing him as
a familiar face in the Iraqi jungle; someone who
has the will and power to get things done, crush
the insurgency and bring order to Iraq.
Syria prefers Allawi as minister of the interior
because when the job was held by the SCIRI
under Jaafari's first cabinet, the SCIRI minister
used to ministry to arrest, torture and settle
old scores with his Sunni rivals.
Overall, then, the Americans will be content,
for now, with the results. They want Jaafari
to appoint "non-sectarian" politicians as ministers
of the interior and defense and have
threatened to reduce US military assistance to
Iraq if this demand is not met. This demand
becomes more difficult with the Jaafari-Muqtada
alliance as Muqtada will insist on sectarian
ministries for both portfolios.
will have to walk a tight-rope, pleasing both the
Americans and Muqtada. This will be very
difficult, unless a breakthrough is achieved
within the Shi'ite community. Jaafari is probably
betting on the influence of his brother-in-law,
the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. The veteran
cleric intervened in 2004 to convince Muqtada to
lay down his arms, and likewise to secure a
promise that Allawi would not arrest him. Sistani
is the only person who can command the Iraqi
Shi'ites. Everybody listens to him: Jaafari, the
SCIRI, Muqtada, Iran and the Americans.
He can either persuade Muqtada to drop his demand
for a sectarian minister for the two contested
posts, to make Jaafari's selection easier, or talk
the Americans into accepting a Sadrist as minister
of the interior or defense (something they will
flatly turn down).
He can also persuade
the Iranians to give Jaafari the benefit of the
doubt, and thereby instruct the SCIRI to work with
him, not against him, as a second-best cabinet.
What is certain for today, however, is
that the Americans are temporarily satisfied and
will not abandon Iraq, as they had threatened to
do a few weeks ago. They are pleased that
Iranian influence has been controlled in Iraq. It
has not, however, been eliminated. This is
something the Americans must never forget.