Iraqi deadlock is broken

Posted in Iraq | 21-Apr-06 | Author: Kirk Semple and Richard A. Opp| Source: International Herald Tribune

Iraqi politicians gathered at an upbeat news conference Thursday in Baghdad included President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, to the right of the microphones; the speaker of Parliament, Adnan Pachachi, left of him; Adnan al-Dulaimi, a Sunni leader, in cap; and Hussein al-Sharistani, of the United Shiite Alliance, in white jacket.
BAGHDAD Under intense pressure from across the Iraqi political spectrum, Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari on Thursday dropped his bid to retain his job, breaking a political deadlock that had stymied the formation of a new government and created a power vacuum in which lawlessness thrived.

In a letter to members of the United Iraqi Alliance, the dominant Shiite bloc that nominated him in February, Jaafari said, "I return this choice to you to take the action you deem appropriate, and you will find me absolutely ready to cooperate with your choice to protect the unity of the United Iraqi Alliance."

Shiite political leaders met throughout the day to deliberate on new nominees; as the largest bloc in Parliament, they have the constitutional right to name the prime minister. Alliance members said a meeting of the full membership, which totals 130 representatives, had been called for Saturday morning.

The acting speaker of the Iraqi Parliament, Adnan Pachachi, postponed a meeting of the 275-member assembly until Saturday afternoon to allow more time for negotiations.

"I believe that we will succeed in forming the national unity government the people are waiting for," Pachachi said at a news conference at the National Assembly building in the capital's fortified Green Zone.

Jaafari's capitulation could signal the end of a tense, two-month-long political stalemate during which the legislature became inert, the civil sector slowed and sectarian violence exploded.

Jaafari won the nomination in February by a single vote in a secret ballot among the Shiites, in part because of support from the anti-American cleric Moktada al-Sadr. But his nomination triggered a groundswell of opposition among Sunni Arab, Kurdish, secular and even some Shiite leaders in Parliament, who criticized him for weak leadership that had failed to improve public services or to stem the surge in violence.

Jaafari, however, had remained defiant. As recently as Wednesday, he firmly declared at a news conference that he would not relinquish his job.

It remained unclear why Jaafari gave in so suddenly on Thursday.

Mahmoud Othman, a member of Parliament and senior official in the Kurdish political alliance, said it appeared that the Shiite clerical leadership in Najaf, particularly the country's most influential Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, had forced Jaafari's hand.

"Jaafari resisted as long as he could, but he reached the point where he couldn't resist any more because of the pressure he had from Najaf," Othman said.

The Shiites also have come under steady pressure from the U.S. government to resolve the dispute, including a visit by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice earlier this month. American officials have made it clear to the Shiites that they preferred a replacement for Jaafari because of his close ties to Sadr, who commands a strong militia, and his relationship with Iran, where he lived for many years in exile.

Although the Shiites could throw their weight behind Jaafari again, his support within the bloc has eroded over the past two months. The most likely possibility is that the bloc will choose another candidate from Jaafari's political party, the Islamic Dawa Party, according to Khalid al-Atiya, an independent member of the bloc. Earlier this week, Shiite leaders agreed that Dawa could nominate a candidate if it withdrew Jaafari.

In recent days Shiite politicians have mentioned two party deputies from Dawa as possible replacements: Jawad al-Maliki, an outspoken and highly visible member of Parliament; and Ali al- Adeeb, a longtime party official and aide to Jaafari.

Haider al-Abadi, a top aide to Jaafari and a former telecommunications minister under the Iraqi Governing Council, also emerged as a potential candidate after Jaafari's announcement Thursday.

Several political leaders said the most popular candidate appears to be Adeeb, though he remains a largely unknown political entity. He "seems to be the front-runner right now," said Pachachi, who is a secular Sunni Arab. "I don't know much about him and lot of people don't know much about him."

Othman said Adeeb "looks more acceptable to most people."

Maliki, according to Pachachi, is "much better known but many people feel perhaps that he is more abrasive."

President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, suggested at a joint news conference with other leaders that the opposition blocs would not oppose the Shiite bloc's next nominee. "The Alliance is free to choose its candidate and we respect the Alliance and its will," he said. "Whoever will be the candidate of the Alliance, we will approve it."

He also expressed confidence that the disputes over the top government jobs - including the president, speaker of the assembly and cabinet - could be quickly overcome.

"We have agreed on the framework, we just need to work out some minor details now," Talabani said. "There will be a friendly atmosphere and there will be a national unity government."

He was flanked by several prominent politicians representing the Shiite, Sunni Arab, Kurdish and independent blocs. All spoke in the kind of optimistic terms that have been mostly absent in the recent political debate.

"We think this is a remarkable change in the stand of Dr. Jaafari to solve this crisis, and the ball is now in the court of the United Iraqi Alliance," said Tariq al-Hashemi, the head of the largest Sunni bloc, the Iraqi Consensus Front.

But away from the microphones, political leaders cautioned on Thursday that, even if the matter of prime minister was settled soon, other fights still lay ahead, including a battle over an acceptable candidate for the post of National Assembly speaker.

The first order of business for Parliament's next session will likely be the selection of the speaker and his two deputies, who must be approved by an absolute majority.

The post is expected to go to a Sunni Arab, and on Thursday, the Iraqi Consensus Front voted to nominate Mahmoud al-Mashhadani for the post, Mashhadani said in a telephone interview.

But two senior Kurdish political officials said in interviews on Thursday that Mashhadani was not acceptable. "We don't prefer him. We think he's very much ideological and extremist," said Othman, one of the officials. "We prefer somebody more moderate."

Parliament then must select a president and two vice presidents by a two- thirds vote, according to the Constitution. Talabani is expected to retain his presidential post; the other two slots will go to a Shiite and to a Sunni Arab.

Afterward, the president has 15 days to ask the prime ministerial candidate to form a cabinet. The Constitution permits the prime minister 30 days to name the cabinet, and each member must be individually approved by an absolute majority of Parliament.

On Thursday, American and Iraqi security forces continued to come under attack. An improvised bomb exploded near a police convoy in the Yarmouk neighborhood of Baghdad, killing a civilian and wounding four policemen, an official at the Interior Ministry said.

An American military convoy in Baghdad was attacked by a homemade bomb, wounding two soldiers and seriously damaging a tank, the official said.

In Kirkuk, an electricity company convoy traveling between Kirkuk and Tikrit was ambushed by insurgents firing machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades. Five people, all foreigners, were killed and three others were wounded, a police official in Kirkuk said.

In Basra, a car bomb killed two civilians and wounded five others, including three traffic officers and a border guard, the police said.

Abdul Razzaq al-Saiedi contributed reporting for this article from Baghdad and Iraqi employees of The New York Times contributed from Kirkuk and Basra.