Ambassador Versus Ayatollah Khalilzad

The Ambassador Versus the Ayatollah
: Khalilzad to Iraq: No Shiite Control of Interior, Defense
Sistani Contradicts Him

On Monday, the stage was set for an epic struggle between the two forces behind the scenes in Iraqi politics, US Ambassadro in Baghdad Zalmay Khalilzad and Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani of Najaf, the spiritual leader of Iraq’s majority Shiites. In every previous such contest, Sistani has handily won against his American opponent.

Nancy Youssef of Knight Ridder reports on the press conference in Baghdad on Monday in which Khalilzad publicly threatened to cut off funding for the training of Iraqi troops if the ministries of defense and the interior are under “sectarian” control.

In plain English, Khalilzad was saying that the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) may not retain control of Interior (which in Iraq is a security organization) and continue to pack it with members of the paramilitary Badr Corps, most of them trained originally by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. Sunni Arabs have charged that Interior Ministry police commandos have functioned as death squads, conducting reprisal killings against Sunnis.

It is in fact important for the recovery of social peace in Iraq that SCIRI and Badr be gotten away from Interior. The problem is that the Shiite religious parties have 132 MPs who will vote with them in a parliament of 275. Barring an unforeseen and substantial defection from among their ranks, they will almost certainly form the government. SCIRI has made it clear that it wants Interior, i.e. federal domestic policing and surveillance, under its control.

So Khalilzad does not have a lot of options. He appears to be attempting to undermine the Shiite government by encouraging the Kurds to ally with the Sunni Arabs. Some theorize that a Kurdish-Sunni alliance could outmaneuver the Shiite United Iraqi Alliance. They argue that the two main Kurdistan parties have 53 seats, the two main Sunni Arab coalitions have 55, and Iyad Allawi’s National Iraqi List has 25, for a total of 133. If they could get the 5 Kurdish Islamists to join them, they would have 138, or 51 percent. There are also 3 Sunni Arab seats of the list of Mishaan Juburi, who had to flee the country in fear of being prosecuted as a Baathist agent; I’m not sure what will happen to his three seats, though.

The Kurdish-Sunni alliance scenario, however, makes no sense. First, it cannot provide the 184 seats needed to select a president, who appoints the prime minister. Only a Shiite alliance with Kurds or Sunnis could accomplish that. And, whoever selects the president will set things up to be sure that the president will ask them to form a government. So the Shiite MPs could strike and refuse to allow a president to be seated unless they were allowed to form the government.

Second, the Kurds want loose federalism. The Sunni Arabs are die-hard opposed to it. Both have their own plans for oil-rich Kirkuk. The 11 neo-Baathists around Salih Mutlak would be absolutely despised by most Kurds. Mutlak praised the Baath as the best party Iraq could have! The Kurds don’t have fond memories of Baathism. A government coalition between Kurds and Sunni Arab Islamists and neo-Baathists wouldn’t last longer than the first cabinet meeting.

Third, the Constitution absolutely requires the president to offer the prime minister post to the party that has the largest number of seats in parliament. It would would be unconstitutional to ask the Kurdistan Alliance with 53 seats to form a minority government with support from other parties, unless the largest party had already tried and failed to form a government.

It should also be remembered that the leading party in parliament controls Iraq’s petroleum profits, of some $17 billion a year, and that this money becomes political patronage for members of the government. That’s a big incentive to any group to stay with a sure thing rather than pulling out in favor of possible role in another, unstable, coalition.

Like it or not, it is the Shiite religious parties that have the cohesion to form a relatively stable government. They would only need to be joined by the Yazidi MP and the 5 Kurdish Islamists to have a majority. (It is also not impossible that some Shiite members of the Allawi list could jump ship and join with the religious Shiites). If Khalilzad goes too far in undermining them, he risks throwing Iraq into complete political instability and hot civil war.

Although there has been talk of the Fadhila or Virtue Party of the United Iraqi Alliance breaking off and going its own way, there has also been talk of Virtue getting one of the vice-presidencies so as to keep it in.

There is another thing. Al-Zaman/ AFP reports that Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani has called for all due speed in the formation of a new Iraqi government. A source close to Sistani said after the visit to him Monday of Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari said that the new government should not only be formed quickly but should “ensure the provision of services to the people. It should be a government based on competence, spotlessness and transparency.” He added, “Sistani also affirmed during the visit the necessity to hew to the perogatives explicitly stated in the constitution with regard to powerful cabinet positions.”

Jaafari said, “My visit to Sistani was so as to get his opinion insofar as he is the shepherd of the political process in Iraq.” He added, “I came to listen to his views, and he affirms the necessity of haste in forming a government that is competent, spotless and transparent, and which acts in accordance with the constitution and the law, and takes an interest in the people and their demands.” Jaafari said he hoped it would not take the three months to form a government that it took the last time. He said Kurdistan would be handled as specified in the constitution (i.e. there will be a popular referendum there in 2007 to decide if it will join the Kurdistan Regional Confederacy of Dahuk, Irbil and Sulaymaniyah).

Sistani, it should be remembered, has resources and authority that might be useful in keeping the Virtue Party from leaving the Shiite coalition. Most Shiites in Basra would not like to be denounced personally by the Grand Ayatollah.

Sistani appears to believe that since the leading party in parliament gets to choose the prime minister, and since the prime minister gets to choose the cabinet members, that it would be wrong for the United Iraqi Alliance to give away its right to powerful cabinet posts such as Defense and Interior, under American pressue.

There is one way for Khalilzad to avoid a debilitating and destructive contest with Sistani on this issue. It is for Khalilzad to identify a member of the United Iraqi Alliance in parliament who is not tied to the militias and who could be minister of the interior. That is, Sistani isn’t demanding that the post go to SCIRI and Badr. He is demanding that it go to the UIA if the UIA wants it. Not all the parliamentarians in the UIA are tied to militias!

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Appendix:

Provisions of the Iraqi Constitution on the Formation of a Cabinet:

‘ Article 73:

First: The President of the Republic shall name the nominee of the Council of Representatives bloc with the largest number to form the Cabinet within fifteen days from the date of the election of the president of the republic.

Second: The Prime Minister-designate shall undertake the naming of the members of his Cabinet within a period not to exceed thirty days from the date of his designation.

Third: In case the Prime Minister-designate fails to form the cabinet during the period specified in clause “Second,” the President of the Republic shall name a new nominee for the post of Prime Minister within fifteen days.

Fourth: The Prime Minister-designate shall present the names of his Cabinet members and the ministerial program to the Council of Representatives. He is deemed to have gained its confidence upon the approval, by an absolute majority of the Council of Representatives, of the individual Ministers and the ministerial program.

Fifth: The President of the Republic shall name another nominee to form the cabinet within fifteen days in case the Cabinet did not gain the confidence. ‘

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