Gridlock in Baghdad
BAGHDAD — Things are, pretty obviously, moving slowly in the formation of the new Iraqi government. I ran into Mahmoud Othman, a rascally Kurd who has been a fixture of Iraqi politics since the old CPA days, outside the Iraqi Convention Center today after renewing my press credentials. We stopped a moment to talk. Because his son is the spokesman for President Jalal Talabani, I consider him fairly plugged in.
“Time is not on our side,” he said, complaining of the slow pace of government negotiations. The results of the elections have been known, more or less, for a long time but the various party leaders are waiting for the official results to be released later this week before they enter into government negotiations in earnest. And one of the major stumbling blocks, of course, is who is going to be prime minister. Since the 555 list (United Iraqi Alliance) contains multiple parties — Sadrists, Dawa Party, SCIRI and others — there is concern that the head of the UIA and the PM should not come from the same party. This could sink Vice President Adel Abdul Mehdi’s chances to take the premiership because he and the 555 head, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, are both from SCIRI. Jaafari may yet stick around because of that.
Othman — and a majority of Iraqis, for that matter — think Jaafari has been a weak and ineffectual PM, but he would be acceptable to the other members of the coalition. Why? Ministries in Iraq are handed out to various parties who then hand out jobs and favors to family members, and tribal and political allies. A strong and popular chief executive would be an impediment to this cronyism.
But the Americans are pushing for Mehdi because of his apparent pro-Western sentiment. He’s also considered malleable. But in this case, he’d be manipulated by the Americans instead of, as in the case of Jaafari, other countries that are spelled almost like “Iraq” but with an “n” instead of “q”. According to _al-Mutamar_, a newspaper published by Ahmad Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress, U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad has wrung a commitment from Mehdi to reduce Iranian influence in Iraq in return for supporting him for prime minister.
To that effect, Khalilzad is threatening to organize an opposition bloc in Parliament if Mehdi isn’t the candidate. The paper reports that this bloc’s candidate would be Barham Salih, from the
Kurdistan Democratic Party Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. (Presumably because getting Mehdi to leave SCIRI would be difficult.) Salih is the current minister of planning and a thoroughly capable, Western-educated guy. He’s a pro-American technocrat through and through.
Despite the wrangling over the premiership, Othman said SCIRI would probably keep the Interior Ministry, although Bayan Jabr would be out of job. The Sunnis would keep the Defense Ministry, but again, with some personnel changes. Maybe they’ll get someone who is up to the job instead of the feckless, but well-meaning, Sadoun al-Dulaimi. “I think we will keep the foreign ministry,” Othman chuckled, referring to the universally regarded Hoshi al-Zebari. (I think he’s universally regarded because he’s never in the country. Absence does make the Iraqi heart grow fonder, it would seem.) It’s almost certain that Jalal Talabani will remain president.
So when we we see a new government? Othman just smiled and walked away.