Shiite leaders ended their deadlock on forming a national-unity government four months after the December 15 parliamentary elections. The United Iraqi Alliance (UIA), a Shiite political bloc that won the most votes in December, had been divided for months over the post of prime minister. Ibrahim al-Jaafari, the embattled incumbent, originally won the nomination by a narrow vote in February, but after intense pressure from the United States, from Kurdish and Sunni Arab leaders, and from within the UIA, Jaafari decided on April 20 to abandon his bid for the premiership. The conditions of his withdrawal required a replacement candidate from Jaafari's conservative Dawa Party, thus guaranteeing that Adel Abdul Mahdi, his rival from the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), would not win the nod. Instead, the nomination for the premiereship has gone to Nouri Kamal al-Maliki. Kurdish and Sunni Arab leaders in parliament say they will not block the nomination. But experts say Maliki lacks political stature and experience, which some say could leave Iraq's central government weaker than it was under Jaafari's rule.
Why did Jaafari decide to step down?
After the visit earlier this month by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, considerable pressure was placed on Jaafari to break the political deadlock. Jaafari also realized his nomination would likely be blocked by Sunnis and Kurds in parliament. So a compromise was negotiated whereby he would step down, provided a member of his Dawa Party would be nominated in his place. Experts also say that Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s senior religious leader, wielded considerable influence behind the scenes to break the logjam.
Who is Nouri Kamal al-Maliki?
Ranked number two in the Dawa Party, the fifty-six-year-old Maliki was head of the security committee in the last parliament. He hails from a prominent family—the Muhasins and holds a master’s degree in Arabic language from Baghdad University. He fled Iraq in 1980 and spent much of his time abroad in Syria. Maliki was heavily involved in Dawa’s opposition politics and briefly edited one of the party’s newspapers. Some experts say his candidacy may be compromised by his role as deputy chairman of Iraq’s de-Baathification committee set up by the Coalition Provisional Authority in 2003. He was also a hard-line negotiator during the constitution-drafting process, resisting U.S. attempts to get more Sunni Arabs involved. Still, Abbas Kadhim, assistant professor of Islamic Studies at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterrey, calls him a strong candidate. “If I were to pick a replacement [for Jaafari], it would be him,” he says, but adds “Maliki may not be amenable to Sunni Arabs and that will create another schism [between the Shiite and Sunni leadership].” Also, Maliki’s brash and outspoken personality may not play well on the international stage, experts say. Others say he may be too sectarian and point to his close ties with radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr as well as his alleged ties to Syrian intelligence.
Who were the other candidates for prime minister?
In the event Maliki's nomination were to be overturned, the following are seen as top candidates for prime minister:
- Ali al-Adeeb. Adeeb, 62, was head of the education and culture committee in the last parliament. A senior member of the Dawa Party from Karbala, about sixty miles south of Baghdad, Adeeb holds a bachelor's degree in literature and education from Baghdad University. From 1965 to around 1980 he taught psychology and later was involved in the Iraqi government's education planning and compulsory literacy program. He was jailed for several years and then fled to Iran in the late 1970s where he remained active in Dawa and became head of its information agency. "He is well known among political junkies in Iraq because he used to write a column in many of the [Dawa] papers," says Kadhim. However, Adeeb does not bring a wealth of political experience, experts say, and his ties to Iran may also compromise his candidacy. "He is untried and I think he'll be troublesome for some groups [in Iraq]," Kadhim adds, referring to the Sunnis and Kurds. Others say Adeeb, who is a close supporter of Jaafari's, would merely continue Jaafari's policies and management style. Says Phebe Marr, a senior fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace, "One of the outcomes if you remove Jaafari and replace him with somebody with less experience who is less well known, is this would make for a weaker central government, while leaving Sadr as part of the equation."
- *Haider al-Abadi. A former spokesperson for the Dawa Party, Abadi served as minister of telecommunications under the Governing Council. He spent much of the Saddam-era in London, and was later named chair of the parliament’s Economy, Investment and Reconstruction Committee. In 2003 press reports indicated Abadi was under investigation over a questionable deal involving Orascom, an Egypt-based telecom, which in late 2003 was awarded a contract to provide a mobile network to central Iraq. But in a November 2003 interview with the Financial Times, Abadi denied influencing the bid and said he was appointed after the Coalition Provisional Authority selected the winners. In 2004 a Defense Department review suggested telecommunications contracting had been illegally influenced by a senior Pentagon official (LAT), and not by Iraqis.
- Adel Abdul Mahdi. A trained economist and former finance minister from SCIRI, Mahdi lost the UIA's secret ballot for prime minister to Jaafari by one vote. "He's seen as more mainstream and Western educated," says Kenneth Katzman, senior Middle East analyst at the Congressional Research Service. "He's also more pro-Western even though his SCIRI ties present obvious problems." In general, Madhi is popular among Iraq's three main ethnic camps. He is also less of a Shiite nationalist than Jaafari, though many of his political views do not parallel Washington's. He favors greater federalism and an Islamic-style democracy. As part of the deal of Jaafari's nomination withdrawal, the UIA ostensibly agreed not to nominate Mahdi, Jaafari's rival.
- Hussein Sharistani. A leading Shiite and deputy parliamentary speaker, Sharistani is seen as a compromise candidate agreeable to most factions in parliament. He has close ties to Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani but is not tied to any political party, or political base, say experts. Others say he's an academic with little political experience who lacks a strong enough personality for Iraqi politics. When his name was floated as a candidate for prime minister following the December 15 elections, he appeared uninterested.
* Editor's Note: The original version of this story did not contain Haider al-Abadi's denial of published reports that he improperly influenced telephone contracts in Iraq.
Who will control Iraq’s main government ministries?
Much of the government's makeup depends on who ends up prime minister. However, Sunnis, given their representation in parliament, are expected to take more portfolios than the eight they currently hold under the interim government. The breakdown of the cabinet does not necessarily have to reflect the composition of parliament. Experts say the most powerful and sought-after portfolios are the ministries of interior, defense, and oil, followed by the ministries of finance and foreign affairs. Here is a look at the chief posts to be contested:
- Interior. Because the premiership went to the Dawa Party, SCIRI is expected to get the interior portfolio. The minister of interior controls billions of dollars, oversees Iraq's 100,000-strong police force, and is responsible for day-to-day local security. Bayan Jabr, the current minister of interior, looks unlikely to retain his position. A high-ranking Shiite member of the Badr Brigade, the military arm of SCIRI, Jabr was accused by Sunnis of employing militia members within his police forces and torturing Sunni prisoners. Sunni leaders, along with U.S. officials, have pressed for an interior minister with no militia ties. A number of candidates have been floated; some are acceptable to both Shiites and Sunnis, others are less so. Among them is Jamal Mithal al-Alousi, a former member of Ahmed Chalabi's secular Iraqi National Congress and ex-head of the de-Baathification committee (charged by U.S. officials with removing remnants of Saddam's ruling party from positions of power). Alousi lost his post after visiting Israel for a conference in September 2004. A second candidate is Kasim Daoud, former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi's national security adviser and former member of Allawi's Iraqi National List who joined the UIA before the December elections.
- Defense. The ministry, which administers, recruits, and trains Iraq's 100,000-strong army, was beset by scandal in 2004 when its former minister, Hazem Shaalan, was accused of embezzling more than $1 billion. "Shaalan did lasting damage to the security establishment of Iraq and set back the Iraqi army by two years," said an Iraqi expert. Sadoon al-Dulaimi, the current defense minister, is seen as competetent and not corrupt. Though he is a Sunni, al-Dulaimi is not popular among Sunnis. Another potential candidate is Hajim al-Hassani, the Sunni speaker of parliament and formerly an investment banker in Los Angeles. "He's a respectable guy and quite moderate in his outlook," says Howar Ziad, Iraq's ambassador to Canada. Experts say the defense portfolio will likely stay in Sunni hands.
- Oil. Iraq sits on the world's third largest reserve of oil, but exports fell to a new postwar low of 1.1 million barrels per day last December, largely because of bureaucratic mismanagement, experts say. Bahr al-Uloum, a Shiite from a prominent Iraqi family, recently resigned for a second time since the December 15 elections over his opposition to fuel price hikes. One candidate being discussed for the ministry is Ahmed Chalabi, a co-founder of the opposition exile group, Iraqi National Congress, and former Pentagon favorite. Chalabi, a secular Shiite who was briefly oil minister last April before being appointed deputy prime minister, did not fare well in December's elections but looks likely to hold some position of power in Iraq's permanent government. Experts say that despite his dubious political past, Chalabi is an adept manager.
Which ministries will Sadr’s followers control?
Political parties affiliated with Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr won roughly thirty of the UIA's 128 seats for parliament, a gain of 50 percent from their earlier parliamentary representation. That will increase the influence of Sadr on Iraqi politics, experts say. Sadr's followers are not a unified camp, experts say. In general, Katzman says, "he will want to shift the whole UIA bloc toward a less cooperative stance with the United States and pressure us to draw down our forces and start clearing out." Further, Sadr is less concerned with issues of federalism and less pro-Iranian than SCIRI. His platform appeals more to younger, poorer Shiites from Sadr City -- a Baghdad slum named for Moqtada's late father -- and Najaf, a predominantly Shiite city about 100 miles south of Baghdad. According to the Christian Science Monitor, Sadrists are expected to pick up two more portfolios in the future government -- most likely the ministries of education and housing -- to add to the three ministries they already control: health, transportation, and civil affairs. "The health ministry serves half a million people a day. The transportation ministry serves 200,000 to 300,000 people," Hazem al-Arraji, a top Sadrist cleric, recently told the Monitor. "But what does the foreign or interior ministry do for poor Iraqis? These ministries are under the control of the occupation; we have no use for them."
What is the political process now that a prime minister has been selected?
On April 22, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, formally designated Maliki to begin formation of a permanent government and nominated Abdul-Salam al-Mashhadani, a Sunni Arab leader who has made controversial comments in the past, to be speaker of the parliament. Talabani's two vice presidents are expected to be Mahdi, a SCIRI leader, and Tariq Hashimi, leader of the Iraqi Consensus Front, the largest Sunni bloc. Prime Minister-elect Maliki then has a month to pick a cabinet. The parliament must then approve his cabinet by a simple majority. The cabinet, however, does not have to follow the political breakdown of the parliament, but experts expect more Sunni Arabs and members of Sadr's group to be given more portfolios.