Three who hold the keys to Iraqi peace

March 14, 2006|By TRUDY RUBIN

PHILADELPHIA -- If you want to know when American troops can draw down from Iraq, here's the nitty-gritty:

The Bush administration has lost control over that decision. America's fate in Iraq now depends not on the skill of U.S. troops, but on the abilities of feuding Iraqi political factions to form a government that can prevent civil war.

U.S. generals know the Iraqi security forces they are training won't hold together unless Iraqi politicians do. If Iraqis divide by sect, their security forces will do the same. Iraqi forces didn't stop the torching of mosques in sectarian violence last month.

So President Bush's mantra that as "Iraqis stand up, we'll stand down" is a pipe dream if Sunni, Kurd and Shiite politicians can't sit together. Yet nearly three months after Iraqi elections, Iraq still has no new government.

Much depends on the finale of the dangerous political drama playing out in Baghdad, whose key actors include the U.S. ambassador to Baghdad, Zalmay Khalilzad, the radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and the supreme Shiite cleric Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

The drama revolves around who will become Iraq's next prime minister. The current prime minister, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, has been tapped to keep his job by the Shiite bloc that won the most National Assembly seats in January elections. But Mr. al-Jaafari showed little competence in his first term and won the nod within his own bloc by only one vote.

Mr. al-Jaafari's most powerful backer is the radical Mr. al-Sadr, who commands a militia, known as the Mahdi army, that has killed many Americans and Iraqis. If the weak Mr. al-Jaafari takes office, beware Mr. al-Sadr's role. In the sectarian violence that followed the recent bombing of a Shiite shrine, the Mahdi army reportedly attacked many Sunni mosques.

The black-turbaned cleric espouses an activist brand of Shiite Islam that was promulgated by his father, a populist ayatollah murdered by Saddam Hussein. Young Mr. al-Sadr seeks a prominent governmental role for clerics, like the role Shiite mullahs play in Iran. Such a role is anathema to Iraq's Shiite clerical establishment, which espouses a quietist theology and privately detests Mr. al-Sadr. With Mr. al-Jaafari in power, Mr. al-Sadr's thugs would play havoc.

Many Shiites fear Mr. al-Sadr and would like Mr. al-Jaafari to step aside for a more competent choice, the Shiite Adel Abdul-Mahdi. But according to his Shiite colleagues, Mr. al-Jaafari believes God has chosen him for the job and refuses to step down.

Sunni, Kurdish and secular parties, who together control about half the parliamentary seats, have united to block Mr. al-Jaafari's nomination. But because the constitution requires a two-thirds parliamentary vote to form a government, the whole process is frozen. Unless the deadlock is broken, Iraq won't have a government and the U.S. exit strategy will collapse.

What's to be done?

Here's where Ayatollah al-Sistani and Mr. Khalilzad play key roles. The ayatollah needs to inform Shiite parliamentarians that he won't object if some join the Kurds and Sunnis in opposing Mr. al-Jaafari. That could produce the necessary two-thirds margin.

Once the numbers shift, Mr. Khalilzad should undertake the initiative he proposed in a Time interview: To persuade leaders of all Iraqi political factions to gather away from Baghdad and stay put until they work out an agenda for national unity. I watched Mr. Khalilzad work similar magic in London in December 2002 when he corralled members of the Iraqi opposition and kept them talking in a 14th-floor hotel suite until they reached accord in the wee hours. Such mediation is crucial at this moment.

We need a new actor for prime minister, an end to Mr. al-Sadr's star role and a new script for Iraqi unity. Only then can Iraq move forward and U.S. troops draw down.

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

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