WHAT TOOK SO LONG (NEW YORK POST OP-ED) By AMIR TAHERI 05/01/05)
NEW YORK POST
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May 1, 2005 -- TALK to anyone interested in the future of Iraq these
days and you are likely to hear a note of frustration. "What are they
doing in Baghdad?" asks a senior British official, expressing
London´s feelings about the long delay in the formation of the new
Iraqi government which has just been unveiled.
It took almost three months, from the day Iraqis turned out in record
numbers to vote in their first free elections, for Prime Minister-
designate Ibrahim al-Jaafari to submit his ministerial list to the
three-man presidential council for approval before presenting it to
the National Assembly.
There is concern that the same slowness could prevent Iraq from
meeting the various deadlines it has set for itself — to write a new
constitution, submit it to a referendum, hold a general election,
form a permanent government and then negotiate the phased withdrawal
of the U.S. forces, all in the course of the current year.
The snail-pace method of forming the government has allowed some
Western opponents of the liberation to conclude that Iraqis and Arabs
in general, are not ready for pluralist politics and had better be
left to stew in the despotic juice of their history.
There is, however, another way of looking at the current Iraqi
experience. The repeatedly delayed formation of the government could,
in fact, be regarded as a sign that the new Iraqi leadership is
bending over backward to play pluralism. This leadership has used the
past three months as a crash course in learning the art of political
negotiations and compromises.
ALTHOUGH the election was held on Jan. 30, the final results were not
officially announced until mid-February. And those results gave no
single party or group a majority in the National Assembly, thus
making coalition-building imperative.
Coalition politics is an arduous proposition at the best of time,
even in mature democracies.
In the case of Iraq, this was further complicated because the two big
blocs that took part, the main Shiite list and the Kurdish list, were
themselves the fruits of coalitions formed prior to the election.
The Shiite list consisted of almost a dozen different parties — with
those parties sometimes containing markedly rival wings. The Kurdish
list brought together six parties and groups, including some that had
a long history of mutual enmity. This meant that each of the two big
coalition groups, the Shiites and the Kurds, had first to sort things
out within its own sphere before entering into talks with others over
The last two weeks of February were thus taken up by horse-trading
within the United Iraqi Alliance, the principal Shiite bloc backed by
Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani.
The key issue was the choice of a prime minister.
There were four candidates in the field, representing the four main
blocs within the alliance. At one point, all the groups went to
Sistani and asked him to choose the prime minister. He refused —
because he wanted the new leadership to remain accountable only to
the Iraqi electorate.
Once al-Jaafari had been chosen as a compromise candidate for
premiership, the fight started over who should fill the other key
posts of the new administration, notably the three-man presidential
council, the speakership of the parliament, and the key ministries.
THE task was further complicated by the Transition Administration Law
(TAL) left behind by Paul Bremer, the American "pasha" who ruled the
country until the transfer of power to Premier Iyad Allawi´s interim
government last June. The TAL requires that all key positions be
agreed upon with a two-third majority.
Theoretically, the united Shiite list and its Kurdish counterpart,
which together do have a two-third majority in the parliament, could
have filled all the posts as they pleased. They decided not to do so
because they knew that Iraq´s fragile democracy needed the largest
possible measure of participation if it is to defeat its armed
Thus the entire month of March was devoted to negotiations between
the leaders of the Shiite and Kurdish lists.
Reaching consensus was not easy. The Kurds insisted to retain a right
of veto under any future constitution. They also refused to disband
their separate armies, known as the "Peshmerga," despite the fact
that they had de facto control over the Defense Ministry. At the same
time, the Kurds continued to press their claim to Kirkuk and taking
measures to change its ethnic composition to their own advantage.
UNDER other circumstances, any of these issues could have led not
only to a breakdown of coalition talks but to civil war. The fact
that the worst did not happen is to the credit of Iraq´s new
pluralist system, in which problems could be resolved through
negotiations and compromise rather than fighting and ethnic
The main Shiite list could have made a deal with Allawi´s list and
formed a purely Shiite Cabinet. That, however, would have been a
recipe for civil war while provoking most of Iraq´s neighbors.
Forging a compromise with the Kurds, however, was only one stage of
the process. It was equally important to bring the Arab Sunnis on
Unlike the Kurds — who, thanks to their experienced leadership, have
won a share of power bigger than their demographic strength would
warrant — the Arab Sunnis have badly suffered from their internal
Broadly speaking, Arab Sunnis are divided into three groups. One
group has thrown its lot in with the insurgency in the hope of
restoring the remnants of the Ba´ath Party to power in Baghdad.
Another group, led by people like Ghazi al-Yawar and Adnan Pachachi,
has shown genuine attachment to the democratic project and, at times
swallowing bitter pills, has remained in the game.
A third group, probably the largest, has hedged its bets. This group
tried to impose Mishaan al-Jabouri as Speaker of the National
Assembly — but failed.
Based on their demographic strength, the Arab Sunnis should have had
at least 40 seats in the National Assembly. But because many Sunnis
either boycotted the polls or were prevented by terrorist threats
from voting, there are only 17 Arab Sunni members in the newly
Theoretically, the Shiite-Kurdish coalition could have ignored the
Arab Sunnis or, at most, granted them only token representation. But
this did not happen either. Both Shiite and Kurdish leaders went out
of their ways to cajole the Arab Sunnis back into the political game.
Thus the new Cabinet headed by al-Jaffari includes seven Arab Sunni
ministers, including some in key positions such as defence. Arab
Sunnis have also already won one of three seats on the presidential
council which is headed by Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani.
DESPITE the fact that the insurgency has been encouraged by the delay
in forming the new government in Baghdad, Iraq´s new leadership was
right in taking time to put together a solid national coalition. It
was important that the new leadership got it right from the start. If
elections are to offer an alternative to civil war, it is imperative
that Iraq´s new democracy give all segments of society as much as
possible without compromising the nation´s unity and territorial
After Jan. 30, it became clear that the insurgency and its terrorist
allies have no chance of winning power in a new Iraq where power
emanates from the will of the people. The delay in putting the new
transitional state structures together should be regarded as a
positive sign that the new Iraqi leadership is learning the art of
power sharing. Iranian author Amir Taheri is a member of Benador
Associates. (Copyright 2005 NYP Holdings, Inc. 05/01/05)
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