Iraq’s Patchwork Presidency Finally Takes Shape

AMMAN – The Iraqi parliament that was elected some 10 weeks ago has finally picked the three-men presidium of the Republic, making Jalal Talabani the first Kurdish president of Iraq. The appointments follow a breakthrough last week when the National Assembly at last agreed on a Sunni Arab speaker.

The presidency has two weeks to appoint a prime minister and a team of ministers, but the announcement may come as early as this week. The main political grouping, the Shia United Iraqi Alliance, has already agreed to nominate one of its members, Ibrahim Jaafari, a member of Iraq’s Islamist Da’wa Party, to head the government.

The slow pace and the difficulty in filling the appointments until now have laid bare the problems Iraq is facing in establishing its first democratic government. Predictably, the balance of power between Iraq’s three main sectarian groups – Shias, Kurds, and Sunnis – has proven to be the biggest stumbling block.

Getting suitable Sunni politicians to fill some high-profile but essentially powerless jobs has been a particularly wrenching part of the process.

The drawn-out process and the open bickering between factions is said by some Iraqis to have further encouraged the Sunni-led insurgency. Sunnis barely participated in the elections, and they feel sidelined by the new political order imposed by the Americans and their allies after the invasion of Iraq two years ago.

The government now being installed is taking over from the appointed interim government of Prime Minister Iyad Allawi. The new government and the National Assembly are charged with drafting a new constitution that should be completed by August. New elections, under the new constitution, should then take place in December.

The make-up of the presidium was predictable from the start. Talabani became the new president in an acknowledgment that Kurds are now the second-most numerous group in the country and in parliament, where they hold the balance of power. The appointment may also help stem the most extreme Kurdish separatist urges. It is a historic occasion; the country has never before had a Kurdish president.

Talabani has one Sunni deputy, outgoing interim president Ghazi al-Yawar, and one Shia vice-president, current finance minister Adel Abdul Mahdi. Mahdi belongs to the main Shia political grouping, the United Shia list that holds more than half of the 275 seats in parliament.

The appointment of the presidium required a two-thirds majority in parliament, placing the Kurds with their combined 75 seats in the position of kingmakers. Kurds make up 20 percent of the country’s 26 million people; Shias are 60 percent; and the Sunni Arabs roughly 15 to 18 percent. Christian and other minorities make up the rest.

The hardest bargaining over the last two months has been over relations among the sectarian groups. This included bargaining over territorial issues such as the oil-rich northern city of Kirkuk, which Kurds want administered as a part of an autonomous Kurdish area.

Control over the huge oil reserves has also been hard fought, and it is still not clear whether Kurds or Shias will head the oil ministry.

Another hotly debated issue has been the system of government: whether Iraq should be a federation, and how far devolution of powers should go. The Kurds have practically run their northern mountain fiefdom as an independent state since the 1991 Gulf War, and not much changed after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

Kurdish leaders have said they will not dissolve their peshmerga militia that fought Saddam Hussein for more than 30 years, and resisted other Iraqi governments before him. Talabani is the leader of one of the two main peshmerga groups and its political arm, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK).

His longtime rival, Massoud Barzani of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), is now expected to head Kurdistan’s autonomous regional parliament.

Kurds and Shias suffered most under the oppressive Ba’ath regime of Saddam Hussein, who relied more on his own Sunni Arab part of the population. Kurds and Shias are united in their resolve to resist any domination by the Sunnis again, but there are also huge differences between them.

The Shia parties are mostly religious, and want a strong Islamic component in the government. Several Shia leaders have ties with the clerics who run neighboring Iran, where many found refuge during the years of Saddam Hussein.

The Kurds are much more secular in outlook, at least where the government of the country is concerned, and they advocate a stricter separation between church and state.

The Sunnis, despite the many Islamic fundamentalists who seem to be involved in the insurgency, are also wary of too much religious influence, particularly if it is seen to be linked to Iran. The Ba’ath Party, which is still popular among many Sunnis, was mainly secular, although Saddam Hussein tried to rope in religious support in his last years.

Apart from all the political and sectarian issues that will have to be settled, the new government’s priority will be to battle the insurgency that shows no sign of waning.

Sunni political and religious leaders who called for a boycott of the January elections have recently shown signs they are willing to denounce the violence and to call on their followers to join the political process.

Ahmed Abdul Ghafour al-Samarrai of the influential Association of Muslim Scholars called on his followers in a sermon last Friday to join the security forces. He did warn them not to assist foreign troops, but this is a big step forward compared to the earlier calls for resistance and warnings again cooperating with the new Iraqi authorities.

The Sunnis may feel they have made a mistake isolating themselves from the political process, which now seems to forge ahead regardless, though slowly and painfully.

There are two other elements that may help determine the success of the new government. The reconstruction of the country has been almost as slow as the political process until now. Both for the Iraqis to see the supposed benefits of democracy and to help fight the insurgency, more progress will have to be made.

And finally, the government will be judged on its relationship with the Americans. It may be premature to talk about the departure of all foreign troops, but the new leaders will have to prove they are not a puppet regime.

Read more by Ferry Biedermann