Iraq: Rice, Straw Press Leaders To Form Government
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw are on the second day of a visit to Baghdad to press Iraqi leaders to quickly form a government. The diplomats' surprise visit comes as Iraq's ruling political parties have been bogged down in negotiations over how to share power since the December 15 parliamentary elections. So far, the task of forming a government has fallen to current Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Ja'fari. But Washington and London have signaled increasing impatience, and Kurdish and Sunni political parties have called on him to admit failure and step aside.
PRAGUE, April 3, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Speaking to reporters in Baghdad today, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice expressed her frustration with the deadlock on forming a government.
"It is time to agree on those positions [in the next Iraqi government] because the Iraqi people are rightly demanding that they have a government after they braved the threats of terrorists to go to the polls and vote," she said.
Her British counterpart, Jack Straw, was, if anything, blunter. He said that not only do Iraqis have a right to see progress in Baghdad, so do London and Washington. And, he said, the United States and Britain want the next prime minister to be someone who is both effective in forming a government and someone the Western powers can work with.
"The Americans have lost over 2,000 people [in Iraq], we've [Britain] lost over 100," he said. "There are 140,000 overseas troops here helping to keep the peace in Iraq and billions of United States dollars, hundreds of millions of British pound sterling have come into this country. We do have, I think, a right to say that we've got to be able to deal with Mr. A, or Mr. B, or Mr. C [as Iraq's new prime minister]; we can't deal with Mr. Nobody."
The frank comments came as the two top diplomats moved into the second day of their unannounced and unprecedented visit to the Iraqi capital that began on April 2. It is unprecedented because U.S. and British officials of this rank rarely stay overnight in Baghdad. Also, Washington and London usually negotiate with Iraq's political parties through their ambassadors.
But the deadlock in Baghdad appears to have become so severe that now only top-level intervention can hope to break it.
In recent weeks, both Kurdish and Sunni Arab political parties have called on the dominant Shi'ite alliance to abandon its nomination of al-Ja'fari to lead efforts to form the next government. U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad has supported the calls.
But al-Ja'fari has said he will fight to keep his job and some of his supporters have called for Khalilzad to be recalled.
Further complicating the picture, some parties within the Shi'ite-led United Iraqi Alliance are now also joining the calls for al-Ja'fari to step down. Those parties include the powerful Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), which with al-Ja'fari's Islamic al-Da'wah party are the two largest Shi'ite religious political parties.
RFE/RL regional analyst Kathleen Ridolfo says that al-Ja'fari's controversial record as prime minister is fueling the calls for him to step aside.
"Kurdish leaders have criticized al-Ja'fari because of his leadership during the transition government and they say that he wasn't effective enough and that he tried to monopolize power," she says. "And, in particular, we see President Jalal Talabani [also a top Kurdish leader] criticizing al-Ja'fari's control over the cabinet during the transitional administration and they hope to bring someone new in so that they can avoid these conflicts in the future."
She says the Sunni Arab parties have these, and other, concerns. "For Sunnis, the issue is somewhat similar, although their main concern with al-Ja'fari is, of course, the performance of the Interior and Defense ministries during his transitional government," she adds. "They criticize particularly the Interior Ministry for leading a campaign of what they say is annihilation against the Sunni Arab population in Iraq."
Washington and London have still other reasons to be impatient with al-Ja'fari. He has championed Islamic values at the expense of secular ones and one of his closest supporters now is radical Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who has led two open rebellions against the U.S.-led occupation.
Lack Of Alternatives
But if al-Ja'fari is under fire, finding a replacement for him is not easy. One possibility is current Vice President Adil Abd al-Mahdi. He lost the Shi'ite alliance's nomination to form the next government by one vote to al-Ja'fari on February 12.
Al-Mahdi could be attractive to Washington and London because he is Western-educated and a proponent of free-market economics. That could temper his Islamist ideals and the long years of exile that he and many other Shi'ite political leaders spent in Iran during the Saddam Hussein era.
But it remains unclear whether al-Mahdi would, in fact, be any more Western-leaning than al-Ja'fari, who was initially viewed by many as a relative moderate due to his own training as a doctor.
It also remains to be seen whether al-Mahdi, who is a top SCIRI official, would be an acceptable compromise candidate for other parties in the Shi'ite alliance, particularly al-Ja'fari's Islamic Al-Da'wah.
Other names sometimes mentioned as potential compromise figures are Husayn al-Shahristani, a former nuclear physicist, and Ali Allawi, who is the current finance minister.
The only certainty is that the compromise figure will have to come from within the Shi'ite alliance. The alliance has shown no intention of giving up its right to form the next government as the leading vote-getter in the December elections.
Analysts say choosing any compromise figure is not only a hugely important but also a potentially risky business. That is because the leading parties in the Shi'ite alliance have armed wings and political tensions in Iraq can spill into the street.
It will be a test of both Iraqi leaders' political wisdom and Rice and Straw's diplomatic skills to assure that does not happen.
Copyright (c) 2006. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org
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