Democracy: Iraq votes, Bush
vetoes By Ehsan Ahrari
Call it desperation, but the United States
has started to take measures in Iraq that would
wreck its most cherished goal there: democracy.
US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad is
reportedly campaigning to either dump the United
Iraqi Alliance's (UIA) candidate for prime
minister, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, or force him to
withdraw. Khalilzad has taken the drastic measure
of appealing to the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani
to that effect.
Parliament's largest bloc
nominates the prime minister under
Iraq's constitution, and last
month Jaafari captured the nomination by one vote
with the help of Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
However, the 275-member parliament is now at an
impasse in talks over forming a new government as
the main Kurdish, Sunni Arab and secular blocs
staunchly oppose a Jaafari premiership.
democracy is meant to reflect the will of the
people, Jaafari, for all his flaws, is a
legitimate candidate to become the country's first
permanent prime minister. But US President George
W Bush is making it clear that his version of
democracy in Iraq means having his preferred
candidate at the helm.
conflicting reports from Iraq about the mechanism
of sending this message to Sistani and about who
The grand ayatollah, the
ultimate arbiter of post-Saddam Hussein Iraqi
politics, has made a point of not granting
meetings with US officials throughout the
occupation. It is possible he made an exception
for Khalilzad, whose selection to be ambassador of
Iraq is not merely fortuitous. The US diplomat is
a native of Afghanistan. In that capacity, he is
perceived as a Muslim-American by those in Iraq
who are impressed by such symbolism.
is missing from that sort of symbolism is the fact
that Khalilzad is also one of the established
neo-conservatives (albeit belonging to the second
or even third tier) of the Bush administration. In
that capacity, he has no problem defining
democracy as nothing but the selection of
US-preferred leaders. However, the US strategy of
handpicking Iraqi and Afghan politicians (it
adopted the same strategy in Afghanistan where it
gave the nod to President Hamid Karzai) appears to
be a measure of last resort.
one report, the US government sent a letter on the
issue to Sistani. Washington has denied Bush was
the signatory. In all likelihood, Khalilzad used
one of his own back-door functionaries to send a
According to another source,
Khalilzad used a meeting with Abdul Aziz al-Hakim,
head of the Supreme Council for the Islamic
Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), to deliver the message
to Sistani. Considering the sensitive and highly
unusual nature of the request, Hakim reportedly
refused it at first, but then passed it on.
Why is it that Jaafari has become a
lightening rod for so much controversy in Iraq?
The situation in Iraq is edging steadily
toward desperation. Apart from being Sadr's
candidate, Jaafari is also preferred by Iran.
Working against Jaafari is that as interim prime
minister, he did not have an impressive record.
More to the point, Sunnis perceive him as being
unable to raise himself above sectarian politics.
However, such criticism is unfair since
Jaafari had to undergo on-the-job training as
prime minister. Also, he was learning the ropes
while insurgents were trying to blow up Iraq. And,
considering that the Sunnis were the chief
supporters of those insurgents, he could not have
been excessively magnanimous about all issues that
were at the heart of their concerns. Finally,
Jaafari's candidacy remains controversial because,
aside from the Sunnis, Kurds and secular Shi'ites
do not like his Islamist credentials.
Iraqi politics allow for no mistakes and
treat harshly those who make errors. The more
visible politicians are, the harsher judgment they
are likely to receive from the public. But the US
problem with Jaafari is that he is viewed not only
as an Islamist candidate, but also a friend of
Sadr and Iran. In that capacity, he remains the
source of considerable distrust by the Americans.
The question is whether it is a reasonable
strategy to interfere in Iraqi power plays and
even go to the extreme of contacting Sistani to
sack Jaafari. The answer is, of course not. It
only underscores the weakness and desperation of
If Jaafari is indeed dropped
as a result of US maneuvers, the Shi'ite schisms
are likely to widen, a development unlikely to
help the American desire for a national unity
government. The pro-Jaafari forces have already
spelled out the essence of what their public
position would be if their candidate is replaced.
One Jaafari spokesman said: "The US ambassador's
position on Jaafari's nomination is negative. They
want him [the prime minister] to be under their
Since democracy is essentially a
numbers game, it will be interesting to see what
happens if Jaafari remains and the UIA remains
intact. Even though the UIA is a broad coalition
of about 20 Shi'ite groups, its two dominant
partners are Hakim's SCIRI and Jaafari's Da'wa
Party. Looking at the numbers, the survival of the
UIA (128 seats) provides stability to Iraq's
electoral politics. That stability is sorely
needed at this critical stage of its democracy.
However, Khalilzad seems to have concluded
that, despite the large size of the UIA compared
to other parties, the mere presence of Jaafari at
the helm will be highly divisive. The alternative,
if Jaafari were dropped, would be splitting up the
UIA. That is where, according to the US strategy,
SCIRI, not the Da'wa Party, would become the
dominant player. Its candidate, Adel Abdel Mahdi,
would be selected prime minister.
had already let it be known that Mahdi was its
preferred candidate even before Jaafari was
elected. In the US's post-Jaafari scenario, Mahdi
would form a coalition government with the support
of SCIRI, the Iraqi Accordance Front (44 seats),
the Iraqi National List (25 seats), the National
Dialogue Front (11 seats), Kurdistan Coalition (53
seats) and Kurdistan Islamic Union (5 seats).
When based purely on numbers, Khalilzad
might not be pursuing a bad strategy. What is
sorely missing from this strategy, however, is the
fact a breakup of the UIA would also intensify
Shi'ite divisions, a development the US can little
So the Bush administration is
clearly gambling in its attempts to break up the
UIA by insisting Jaafari be dropped. Another
unknown is how Iran would react to this
development, especially when it is about to start
a dialogue with Khalilzad on the future of Iraq.
At the same time, it is also possible
Khalilzad's maneuvers to bring about the demise of
Jaafari might also be aimed at gaining some
negotiating advantage over Iran. Meanwhile, Iran
is not oblivious to the implications of
Khalilzad's maneuvers, and might make a few
strategic moves of its own in coming days.
As these maneuvers and counter-maneuvers
are being played out among various Iraqi sectarian
and political factions, Iran and the United
States, the country's stability continues to
deteriorate. It is ironic that, by indulging in
these maneuvers, all the power brokers in Iraq
seem to be doing the bidding of the country's
insurgents who want to ensure Iraq remains
Ehsan Ahrari is an
independent strategic analyst based in Alexandria,
VA, US. His columns appear regularly in Asia Times
Online. He is also a regular contributor to the
Global Beat Syndicate. His website: