Moderate Iraqi Shiite offers glimmer of hope

November 15, 2005|By TRUDY RUBIN

PHILADELPHIA -- In a week when Iraqi terrorists blew up hotels in Amman, Jordan, and President Bush denounced his Iraq critics, the real Iraq news was elsewhere.

The man who might prove crucial to facilitating an eventual U.S. exit from Iraq moved around Washington with minimal media notice. He is Iraqi Vice President Adel Abdul-Mahdi, a Shiite politician and the leading candidate to become Iraq's prime minister after the Dec. 15 elections.

Mr. Mahdi's ability to forge an Iraqi political consensus that could undercut the insurgency might be the key to calming his country. Most top U.S. military officers and civilian officials agree that stability in Iraq can't be won militarily but will depend on the skill of Iraq's leaders. The December elections will be particularly important because, after a series of hapless interim administrations, voters will choose a permanent government.

So the fate of America's Iraq venture might well hang on the ability of Mr. Mahdi to pull his country together.

He is a fascinating mix - a French-trained economist who speaks fluent English and was a Baathist and a Maoist in his youth. He abandoned Baathist politics early and became an anti-Saddam Hussein exile. He is now a leader of SCIRI (the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq), the largest Shiite political party in parliament, which is headed by a cleric and has close ties to Iran. But the urbane Mr. Mahdi puts forward a moderate program and says Iraq can be friends with both Tehran and Washington.

I met with Mr. Mahdi, and here's what he says about the two issues most important to Iraqis and us.

Can Iraq bring minority Sunnis, who dominated under Mr. Hussein, into the political process? Will this undercut the insurgents?

"We know Iraq won't work without Shia, Kurds and Sunnis," Mr. Mahdi insists. Sunnis boycotted January elections and Shiites won a majority. But he says Shiites worked hard to bring Sunnis into the subsequent political process. He predicts a huge Sunni turnout in December.

And Shiites agreed that the constitution would be open for amendment in response to Sunni unhappiness over many provisions. Because Sunnis fear domination by Shiites, the political system can't just operate by majority rule, Mr. Mahdi says. "We need another principle: consensus."

That means leaders of the Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds must agree on basic principles to avoid conflict. "Consensus will isolate the Sunnis from terrorists," he says.

Sunnis also are frightened by the concept of federalism embraced by Shiites. The latter envision having their own huge federal state in southern Iraq, including nine of the country's 18 provinces, where much of Iraq's oil is located. That would "balance" a Kurdish federal state in the north. Sunnis fear such a formula would split Iraq apart, leaving them in a desert "Sunnistan" without oil.

Mr. Mahdi supports formation of a large Shiite state, but invites Sunnis to put other ideas on the table.

But he warns that no consensus is possible if Sunnis keep supporting an insurgency that uses car bombs and murder. His brother was assassinated two weeks ago.

What kind of relationship does Mr. Mahdi foresee between the United States and Iraq? Does he want U.S. troops to stay or leave?

In May 2003, Mr. Mahdi told me that the Shiites made a strategic decision to accept the U.S. invasion as the only way to oust Mr. Hussein, even though they opposed occupation. But, he says, "we don't have the intention of calling for a timetable [for U.S. withdrawal] before we are sure this won't create a security vacuum."

He says the next Iraqi government will work out the details of a status-of-forces agreement by the end of 2006. Most important, Iraqis want U.S. forces to withdraw from their cities as soon as Iraqi forces can replace them. "We want a separation between the U.S. troops and the population," Mr. Mahdi says. "[Defense] Secretary [Donald H.] Rumsfeld agreed with me that this is something we can work on."

From Mr. Mahdi's words, one can at least imagine a Shiite-Sunni-Kurd consensus that would undercut insurgents and allow U.S. troops to start drawing down in 2006. No guarantees. But a glimmer of hope.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Her column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. Her e-mail is trubin@phillynews.com.

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