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A new phase in Iraq

Print edition : May 06, 2005 T+T-

Iraq gets a Shia Prime Minister and a Kurd President more than nine weeks after the elections, but this is unlikely to bring lasting peace unless the new leaders urgently address major Iraqi concerns, especially regarding the U.S. occupation.

ATUL ANEJA in Manama

AFTER prolonged negotiations and a string of deals made behind closed doors, Iraq is set to have a new government. More than nine weeks after the country's controversial elections, Shia leader Ibrahim Jaafari was named the new Prime Minister. Under Iraq's interim law, the Prime Minister would exercise the maximum power and would head a Cabinet of Ministers. The Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani has already been sworn in as President, along with his two deputies. The ceremony on April 6 took place in Baghdad's high-security Green Zone - a sensitive area that the Iraqi resistance has targeted at regular intervals.

The new government, whose broad contours are now visible, mirrors the results of the January 30 elections, in which the Shias and the Kurds won the largest number of seats. The United Iraqi Alliance (UIA), the Shia umbrella organisation, secured 148 seats in the 275-member Assembly, while the Kurdish alliance managed 77 seats. Consequently, a Shia leader has become the Prime Minister, while the figurehead presidency has gone to a Kurd.

The United States-backed interim Prime Minister, Iyad Allawi, lost out badly in the polls despite having the backing of the official machinery and unrivalled access to the air waves. Allawi's Iraqiyah ended up with only 14 per cent of the seats and consequently had little leverage in the post-poll negotiations, in which the Shias and the Kurds were the main players. Among the voters, the secular-leaning middle classes in Baghdad and Basra backed Allawi. His popularity, however, plummeted after he enthusiastically supported the brutal American bombardment of Falluja last November.

Faced with the prospects of having only a relatively few "reliable" allies within the new government, the U.S. has put pressure on Allawi's group to join the government, instead of letting it cool its heals in the Opposition. Juan Cole, a West Asia expert at the University of Michigan, points out that the "Kurds and the Americans wanted to see a government of national unity where Allawi and the secular, largely ex-Baathist, Shias retained at least a little influence inside the new state".

The new Assembly has made a concerted attempt to please the Sunnis, Iraq's second largest community, which by and large boycotted the polls. Consequently, Ghazi Al Yawer, a Sunni, has been chosen as one of the Vice-Presidents. Hajim Al Hassani, who also belongs to the Sunni community, has been picked as the Speaker of the new Parliament. The new Assembly will now write Iraq's Constitution by August 15, and fresh elections, according to an existing timetable, will be held in December.

CONTRARY to the expectations aired in the mainstream media, the emergence of a new government is unlikely to bring lasting peace to the oil-rich nation.

Unless the new leaders quickly address some of the main Iraqi concerns and are prepared to confront the U.S. occupation authorities through street protests, it is unlikely that the armed resistance against the occupation will drop. Sunni groups have so far been at the forefront of the resistance, though Shias loyal to the young cleric Moqtada al-Sadr have not been silent. Al Sadr's Mehdi army has valiantly revolted twice against the occupation, incurring a huge human cost as a result. Last year's uprising triggered a full-scale U.S. crackdown over the Shia strongholds of Najaf and Sadr City, situated on the outskirts of Baghdad.

It is now well recorded that the Iraqis, who voted in large numbers, saw the elections as a means to end the occupation. Responding to the popular mood, the UIA had listed the necessity of an early U.S. withdrawal high on its election agenda. The Shia alliance bluntly said that it wished to have urgent negotiations with the occupation forces so that a pullout timetable could be prepared.

The UIA is now feeling the heat to deliver on its commitment. The Association of Muslim Scholars (AMS), a powerful Sunni religious group, which exercises considerable influence over the resistance, has declared more than once that the new government should set a time-frame for the American withdrawal from Iraq. Moqtada al-Sadr's group has also backed the Sunni call.

The pressure on the new government is expected to grow, as the Sunnis are not too pleased with the appointment of Hassani as the Speaker. Despite being a Sunni, Hassani has a background that has not generated much confidence within the community. The new Speaker's track record shows that he had once been a sympathiser of the Muslim Brotherhood, a politico-religious organisation that has advocated political Islam. This has put off many secular-minded Sunnis, who are wary of having a theocracy implanted in Iraq. Hassani has also spent long years in exile in the U.S. He has lectured at several American universities, managed an Internet company and recently headed an American investment and trading company in Los Angeles. His prolonged association with the U.S. has raised enough suspicions about his links with Washington.

Hassani's handling of the crisis in Falluja, resulting in the destruction of the city, appears to have alienated him from ordinary Iraqis. Hassani declined to resign from the interim government, in which he was Industry Minister, despite being asked to do so by his Iraqi Islamic Party, following the attack. Consequently, he was expelled from the party and had to join the Iraqiyun group of Ghazi Al Yawer, the present Vice-President, in order to file for the elections.

The UIA has so far shown a disinclination to confront the Americans head on, with its leaders dithering from fixing a definite time-line for the withdrawal. In his recent statements, Prime Minister Jaafari has expressed his preference for an end to the occupation only after the Americans had raised an effective Iraqi security force. Aware of the mounting pressure, President Talabani has said that it would take around two years for the Iraqis to rebuild their forces and secure the country. "I think within two years we can do it, and at the same time we will remain in full consultation and coordination, cooperation with our American friends," Talabani told the American news channel CNN within days of taking over the Presidency.

WITH the U.S. occupation entering another phase, a new composite group has emerged, which is seeking an early American withdrawal. On February 15, the "Anti-Occupation Patriotic Forces" declared its presence and made seven demands. The grouping has the AMS and Moqtada al-Sadr's group as its nucleus. Significantly, the alliance also includes a few constituents outside the Islamic mainstream, including secular and leftist forces and also women's groups. Its demands include a timetable for the withdrawal that is "clear, precise, public and binding under international guarantees". Iraqis, it has emphasised, should exercise full sovereignty over their land. Its stress on sovereignty has pitted it against the U.S. plan to have a string of military bases inside the country. The alliance has insisted that resistance to the U.S. occupation is legitimate, but has strongly opposed violence that targets innocent Iraqis, institutions of pubic utility, mosques, churches and all religious places.

The Sunni-Shia alliance reflected in the grouping was visible on the ground on April 9, when Al Sadr called for mass demonstrations against the occupation, exactly two years after U.S. troops seized control of Baghdad. Most of the demonstrators in Baghdad were Shias loyal to Al Sadr, but the AMS also endorsed the call. Coordinated protests seeking an end to the American presence took place in the Sunni strongholds of Ramadi and Baiji as well.

"Many of our brothers, including Sunnis, have welcomed the call and will take part," Sheikh Abdul-Hadi al-Daraji, a spokesman for Al Sadr, was quoted as saying. Followers of the Shia cleric from the southern cities of Basra, Amara and Nassiriya travelled long distances to join the protest. A small crowd of Iraqi Christians also participated in the demonstration, with placards saying, "We support the call of Sayyid Moqtada for national unity."

The protesters, estimated over 150,000, marched from the poor Shia district of Sadr City to the Firdos Square for a rally. The Square and the side streets were choked with crowds waving Iraqi flags and holding aloft effigies of British Prime Minister Tony Blair and U.S. President George W. Bush. "No, no to the occupiers," many of them shouted, while other chanted, "No America! No Saddam! Yes to Islam!" The protesters also called for a speedy trial of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, whose statue at Firdos Square was toppled two years ago.

It is not inconceivable that a combination of Sunnis and a section of Shias, along with some of Iraq's minority groups, may acquire a higher profile and give the resistance a new political meaning in the months to come.