The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

As New Iraqi Govâ€TMt Takes Shape, Next Steps Remain Tenuous

by Chris Shumway

From more than two months of conflict, a mixed-bag Iraqi executive group has emerged from a process critics say may engender divisiveness, marking Iraq’s most recent step toward a fragile future.

Apr. 8, 2005 – After nine weeks of often bitter disputes and political wrangling, leaders of Iraq’s newly powerful Shi’ite and Kurdish political factions have filled the top four posts in the country’s transitional government, which will be responsible for writing Iraq’s next constitution.

But while Washington celebrates recent events as "momentous" steps towards democracy, many Iraqis question the process by which the new leaders were chosen and wonder whether top officials will actually have the ability to govern a country that remains under US military occupation and is embroiled in a violent, apparently highly decentralized insurgency.

Stumbling Start

On Wednesday, Iraq’s National Assembly selected Jalal Talabani, a former Kurdish rebel leader to fill the mostly ceremonial post of president. Shi’ite Islamist Adel Abdul Mahdi and Ghazi Al-Yawar, a Sunni who has served in the interim governments, were elected vice-presidents. One day later, President Talabani was sworn in, his first act of office being the installation of Shi’ite Islamist Ibrahim Al-Jaafari as prime minister, the government’s most powerful office.

But a gaffe by Talabani at his swearing in ceremony, and the reaction to it by some Shi’ite members of the assembly, suggested that tensions between the two most powerful factions in the government are still running high. According to the Associated Press, after finishing his inaugural speech, Talabani walked off the stage without naming the new prime minister as expected. He later returned to announce Al-Jaafari, but most television feeds of the ceremony had been cut. Talabani reportedly said he had forgotten to name Al-Jaafari during his speech.

Although Al-Jaafari reportedly did not seem offended, some Shi’ites expressed anger. "We hope that they forgot," said Abbas Hassan Mousa Al-Bayati, a top member of the Shiite-led United Iraqi Alliance who spoke to the AP. "This happened because of bad management," he concluded.

Enforced Sectarianism

Adhering to conditions established by Iraq’s Transitional Administrative Law (TAL) -- an interim constitution adopted in early 2004 by the country’s US-installed Interim Governing Council (IGC) under the supervision of the former Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) -- candidates for president and the two vice presidential seats had to be approved by at least two-thirds of the new assembly before winning the offices.

As a result, the Shi’ite bloc, which holds a slim, 51-percent majority of the assembly’s seats, was forced to accept a Kurdish president in order to win that group’s support for a Shi’ite prime minister. Thus, Kurdish politicians, according to critics, have a share of power disproportionate to their people’s share of the Iraqi population .

The major Kurdish political parties largely supported the 2003 US invasion and have opposed setting up a firm timetable for the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq.

Some Shi’ites and Sunnis, the latter holding only seventeen seats in the assembly, criticized the way the top governmental positions were filled, complaining that they were predetermined. They argued that being forced to fill certain seats with members of particular sects amounts to a "quota system," inflaming rather than calming the country’s sectarian tensions.

"I am… against the quota system," Sheikh Abdul Karim Al-Mahamadawi, a Shi’ite from the southern marshlands who led his people’s resistance against Saddam Hussein, told Agence France-Presse. "I call it canned democracy offered by America...."

Sheikh Fawaz Al-Jarba, a second cousin of President-turned-Vice President-elect Ghazi Al-Yawer and the chief of a tribe made up of members from Iraq’s various ethnic groups, told AFP, "This is a farce, everything is pre-ordained and pre-arranged before lawmakers convene." Al-Jarba added that "the old wounds" of sectarianism "are getting deeper."

In the end, it is unclear which factor of Iraq’s new state is causing more divisiveness: the disproportionate makeup of the popularly elected Assembly itself or the wedge allowing minorities to powerfully influence insufficient majorities.

Civil Disarray

Some analysts draw parallels between the design of Iraq’s new presidential council and Lebanon’s National Pact, a "gentlemen’s agreement" drawn up in 1943 that governed the shape of Lebanon’s government for decades. Under the deal, a member of the Lebanese Christian Maronite community held the presidency, while the premiership and speaker of parliament went to a Sunni and a Shi’ite respectively.

Sami Moubayed, a Syrian political analyst, argued in the Asia Times that such an arrangement is "the safest formula to guarantee proper representation and minimize conflict between all parties in the new Iraq that is being created." But if Talabani and other Kurdish politicians go against Shi’ite and Sunni leaders and press for more autonomy for Iraq’s Kurdish region, Moubayed warns, Shi’ites and Sunnis could rise against their Kurdish neighbors, igniting a civil war.

Such a scenario may already be in the making at the local level, where sectarian battles rage in many Iraqi provinces. According to the LA Times, violence driven by fierce ethnic and political rivalries threatens to undermine newly established provincial councils.

After claiming that Kurdish officials are refusing to share power in the northern Al-Tamim province, home to the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, newly elected Turkmen and Arabs are boycotting council meetings.

In Najaf province, a power struggle between the outgoing governor, who was appointed by US officials, and his successor has led to armed clashes in recent weeks between rival security forces, the Times reported.

And in Diyala province, newly elected council members have not even gathered for their first meeting. According to a council member who spoke to the Times, the Diyala officials fear they will meet the same fate as eight US-appointed predecessors who died at the hands of assassins.

"The councils are in a much bigger mess than the National Assembly," Kamil Chaderchi, deputy minister of public works and municipalities, told the Times. "And no one is paying attention," he added.

Creeping Fundamentalism

At the national level, many women’s rights advocates and secular Iraqis worry that Islamist Shi’ites in the assembly will try to impose Islamic law, or Sharia, on family matters such as marriage, divorce, dress codes and inheritance, as The NewStandard reported last month.

In a March interview with Germany’s Der Spiegel, incoming Prime Minister Al-Jaafari promised that his government would introduce Sharia as "one of several sources of jurisprudence" in the new constitution, which is to be drafted by August. He promised that Iraq’s brand of Islamic law would not mirror Iran’s or Saudi Arabia’s, insisting for example that women will "be free to choose for themselves" whether they will wear veils.

Kurdish leaders have so far resisted the establishment of Islamic law and might have the leverage to derail it, but advocates fear that, in order to preserve political power, the Kurds would concede to the Shi’ite bloc decisions about whether to adopt Sharia.

Occupation and Resistance

Other critics of the new government question whether it can actually govern while occupying US troops and Iraqi security forces battle an aggressive insurgency that continued to launch deadly attacks as Iraq’s new leaders were swearing the oaths of their respective offices. In the northwestern town of Tal Afar a suicide bomber wounded twelve civilians Thursday, and in Tikrit a car bomb wounded four Iraqi policemen, AFP reports.

Rebels also recently abducted General Jalal Mohammed Saleh, a senior Iraqi commander who runs a counterinsurgency unit, and four of his bodyguards as Saleh left his home in Baghdad’s upscale Mansour district, the Independent reported.

While US commanders claim that the insurgency is losing strength, is appears as though rebels are launching fewer, but more sustained attacks on American and Iraqi forces. Last Saturday, for example, suicide bombers attacked Abu Ghraib jail near Baghdad while other insurgents fired mortars at it. In a battle that reportedly lasted more than an hour, American officials say the rebels wounded 35 US soldiers and twelve Iraqi inmates.

The United Nations Security Council resolution that authorizes the US-led occupation will expire at year’s end. By New Year’s Day 2006 the US must obtain a renewal resolution, receive an active invitation from the Iraqi government, pull its forces out of Iraq entirely, or stand in de facto violation of international law.

Chris Toensing of the Middle East Research and Information Project in Washington, DC pointed out to Inter Press Service that the victorious United Iraqi Alliance has thus far shirked its campaign promise to require a timeline for the withdrawal of US troops. Toensing noted that foreign forces presently serve as the UIA-led government’s best protection.

Saddled with some fourteen of what occupation forces call "enduring" military installations, Iraq’s new government can expect to host tens of thousands of armed Western guests – authentically welcome or not – for the foreseeable future. But with the Iraqi people demanding an end to both terrorism and occupation, the question of whether a modestly democratic country can endure such a multitude of tensions remains to be seen.

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Chris Shumway is a contributing journalist.

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