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IRAQ: Ibrahim Jaafari

Author: Sharon Otterman
April 7, 2005

What kind of prime minister will Ibrahim Jaafari make?

Jaafari, 58, is a conservative, religious Shiite. For nearly 40 years, he has been active in the Islamic Dawa Party, a movement committed to establishing an Islamic state in Iraq. Experts say he would like to ensure that the constitution the transitional government will draft respects sharia, or Islamic law, but they disagree on how aggressively the soft-spoken family physician will pursue this aim. "He is an Islamist.... He will pursue his ideas. But he is also very ambitious and will be ready to compromise," says Faleh A. Jabar, a research fellow at Birkbeck College of the University of London and author of The Shiite Movement in Iraq.

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What is Jaafari's background?

Jaafari was born in 1947 in the Shiite shrine city of Karbala into a large family that traces its lineage to the Prophet Mohammed. In 1966, while attending medical school in Mosul, he joined the Dawa Islamiya (Islamic Call) Party, which was founded in 1957 to promote political Islam during a time when communism and other secular political movements were gaining strength. In 1980, Jaafari fled to Iran to escape Saddam Hussein's brutal crackdown on the party. In 1989, he moved to London, where he became Dawa's spokesman.

In 2003, after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, Jaafari returned to his homeland. He became the first of nine rotating presidents of the now-defunct Iraqi Governing Council, and in June 2004 was appointed as one of two vice presidents of the interim government. In a 2004 opinion poll, he was ranked the third most popular figure in Iraq, after the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the leading Shiite cleric in Iraq, and Muqtada al-Sadr, the young, renegade Shiite cleric whose militia fought against U.S. forces in April, June, and August 2004.

What accounts for Jaafari's popularity?

The Dawa Party is an indigenous Iraqi movement that for decades was the main resistance party inside Iraq against Saddam Hussein. Thousands of its members were jailed or killed because of their opposition to the regime. "Dawa has earned immense public respect for this and represents a powerful combination of nationalism and Islamism," says Graham E. Fuller, former vice chairman of the National Intelligence Council. Jaafari draws his support from Iraqi Shiites--some 60 percent of the population--because his party is made up of Shiites and is rooted in their religious tradition. (Experts say, however, that in its first decade of existence, Dawa was a pan-Islamic movement that embraced both Sunni and Shiite precepts.) "Jaafari is seen as an Iraqi who struggled underground and suffered indignities. He was consistently one thing [a Dawa supporter]--unlike other candidates, who changed their allegiances over time," says Phebe Marr, senior fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace and author of The Modern History of Iraq.

Has the Dawa Party used violence to support its goals?

Yes, though originally, Dawa had a nonviolent approach, believing that the dissemination of ideas would convince people to embrace Islam as the organizing principle of society. "It is a party of gradual social change," says Laith Kubba, senior program officer for the Middle East at the National Endowment for Democracy; in 1992, he worked with Jaafari as part of the Iraqi opposition to Saddam Hussein. The party's tactics changed, however, after Saddam Hussein's Baath Party began to root out and execute Dawa supporters in the late 1970s, culminating in a purge of hundreds of members in 1980.

How did the party react?

Surviving cadres fled to Iran and other countries. Those who stayed in Iraq pushed the already-secret movement even deeper underground, and began to organize violent strikes against the regime, including alleged bomb attacks in public buildings. Some of the new Dawa offshoots in other countries also began to organize attacks, including a 1981 car bombing at the Iraqi Embassy in Beirut that killed 61 people. Other branches, influenced by Iran's anti-U.S. stance and the group's growing links to Iranian intelligence, began to engage in anti-Western violence. In 1983, Dawa staged a double suicide bomb attack on the U.S. and French embassies in Kuwait. The Kuwaitis caught, convicted, and imprisoned 17 Dawa members involved in the attack, including the brother-in-law of Imad Mugniyah, a Lebanese Hezbollah member who subsequently took American hostages in Beirut in part to press for the release of his imprisoned relative.

Is Dawa still a terror group?

No, and it is not on the U.S. State Department's list of terrorist organizations. After the end of the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, more moderate branches of Dawa began to gain ascendance. Dawa is widely believed to have ended its terrorist activities by about 1990.

Was Jaafari involved in terrorist activities?

He has never been linked to any attacks. Jaafari, who was in Iran as a second- or third-tier political leader of Dawa during the violence of the 1980s, has denied involvement in terrorist incidents.

What was the relationship between Jaafari and Iran?

Many aspects of his decade-long exile in Iran remain murky, experts say. Jabar says Jaafari accepted some funding from Iran for Dawa's anti-Saddam Hussein activities, but "tried to maintain Dawa's autonomy from the Iranian government under tremendous Iranian pressure." Iran had several reasons to co-opt Dawa: the group sought the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, Iran's enemy in the Iran-Iraq war, and it had active offshoots in Lebanon, Syria, and elsewhere in the Shiite world where Iran wished to exert influence. Some experts say Dawa maintained considerable distance from Iran's ruling mullahs, unlike another anti-Saddam group, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), founded by Iran in 1982. SCIRI is now a formidable political force in Iraq which won control of many provincial councils in the Shiite-dominated Iraqi south in the January 30 elections.

Does Jaafari support the idea that, as in Iran, clerics should run the government?

During his years in Iran he accepted the idea, known in Arabic as veliat i-faqih, or rule by Islamic jurist, Jabar says. But he opposed the dominance of clerics in the Dawa Party, and his anti-clerical position led to a mid-1980s split in Dawa, with Jaafari at the helm of the anti-clerical wing. Some experts say Jaafari, who is not a cleric himself, was opposed to veliat i-faqih by the time he left Iran for London, where he aligned with a more moderate Dawa branch.

Jaafari reflects ambivalence within the Dawa Party towardveliat i-faqih, experts say. This innovation of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the father of the Iranian revolution, subverted the traditional Shiite position that barred clerics from direct involvement in politics. Dawa's founder, Mohammed Baqr al-Sadr (an uncle of Muqtada al-Sadr), did not favor the principle originally, but accepted it shortly before his execution at the hands of Saddam Hussein's security forces in 1980, Marr says.

How much of a religious bent would a Jaafari government have?

It's unclear. Jaafari says he favors a moderate Islamic course, in which Islam would be the official Iraqi religion, laymen would run the government, and women's and minorities' rights would be respected. "Islam should be the official religion of the country, and one of the main sources for legislation, along with other sources that do not harm Muslim sensibilities," he said in a recent interview with The Associated Press. But some of Jaafari's aides have indicated they would like inheritance, divorce, and other so-called personal-status laws to be brought into accordance with sharia. Jaafari was among the Shiite leaders who pushed for such a change to Iraq's secular legal system under the U.S.-led occupation.

What are Jaafari's views about Iraq's sectarian and ethnic groups?

He says that Sunnis and other minority groups should be respected and given posts in the new regime. "If we [the Shiite coalition] win, we will rule as Iraqis, not as Shiites only … and we will include other communities," he said in an interview with Agence France-Presse (AFP) February 16. Sunnis, some 15 percent to 20 percent of the population and who were favored under Saddam Hussein, largely boycotted the election and are the main force behind the ongoing insurgency. "The background of those who are victimizing Shiites might be Sunni, but there is wide understanding that they do not represent Sunni thinking," Jaafari told Reuters recently.

What has Jaafari said about Iran?

That he doesn't have links to the Iranian government: "This is just a widespread, mistaken belief," he told The Associated Press February 16. But he also says he looks forward to a positive relationship with Iran. "I personally look at Iran as part of the geographical entourage of Iraq and a friendly state which stood by Iraq's side in a time of crisis: It harbored Iraqis when Saddam Hussein killed, displaced, and harmed many of them," he told United Press International in August 2004. He added that he expected Iran not to interfere in Iraqi affairs.

Would Jaafari ask U.S. forces to leave Iraq soon?

It's unlikely. Jaafari has recently spoken of the need for U.S. troops to prevent Iraq from falling into further chaos. "Despite their presence here in Iraq, terrorism exists. Can you imagine what will happen if we ask them to leave? This could mean the beginning of a civil war," Jaafari told AFP February 1. However, the Dawa Party was one of the first in 2003 to stage pro-withdrawal demonstrations, and Jaafari opposed the U.S.-led offensives against insurgents in Najaf and Falluja in 2004, saying he backed an Iraqi political solution to the violence. Because of their Islamist, nationalist outlook, "the Dawa are probably highly opposed to the U.S. occupation and will want to see it come to an early end," Fuller says. "But," he adds, "they have to be careful not to cross Washington at this delicate juncture, when they hope to avoid a U.S. veto of their assumption of the prime ministry."

How would a Jaafari-led government treat former members of Saddam's regime?

It is generally expected to take a hard line against former Baathists who committed crimes, especially those involved in purges against Shiites and other minority groups. "I think there is a need to execute the ones who committed these crimes. But I will accept any result on condition that it is fair and organized by a fair government," Jaafari recently said. Jaafari has also said Baathists who were forced to join the party and did not commit crimes will be able to keep their jobs. His goal, he said last August, is a "democratic, secure, and stable state, which will be consolidated by political awareness and rejection of the old regime's suppression and dictatorship."

Would he be a strong leader?

Experts disagree. Jabar says that Jaafari is a flexible leader, "a lenient person who responds to pressure." This means his leadership will be marked by a tendency toward pragmatism, he says. The sources of pressure will be many: the Iranian government, the Sunni bloc, the Kurds, and the Americans. On the one hand, a Jaafari government could be marked by a tendency toward compromise--a potentially positive outcome in the divisive atmosphere of Iraqi politics. On the other hand, it could be too weak to create consensus, making it ineffective, Marr says.

— by Sharon Otterman, associate director, cfr.org

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