2. Ration Book Diplomacy Is Key to Secret Shiite-Kurdish Accord.

US administrator in Iraq, Paul Bremer has mediated a secret pact between the two most prominent figures – and natural rivals – of post-Saddam Iraq: Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani and Shiite grand ayatollah and father figure Ali Sistani. Under his prodding, they have come to terms on the creation of an interim government next June and the modalities of a general election for a democratic government in Baghdad.

Talabani did his bit by stumping earlier through the Shiite regions of southern Iraq (as reported in Talabani, the Coming Man in DEBKA-Net-Weekly 138 on December 12).

DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources reveal that, to clear the way for an agreement between the two Iraqi leaders, Bremer had to give way on an apparently trivial bureaucratic matter. He agreed to individual voter eligibility being determined by the presentation of a ration book issued by the Saddam regime and still valid. Sistani reciprocated by dropping demands on the composition of the government.

The US official’s concession is of sweeping consequence. It will leave the United States without any way of controlling who turns out for the poll and with insufficient time in the six months until the transfer of government to prevent the wholesale manufacture of forged ration books. Armed with these documents, Baath loyalists and other anti-American groups could inundate parliament.

Bremer, on the other hand, trusts in the understandings reached between Sistani and Talabani to produce solutions that will offset any such undesirable electoral outcome. Both are perfectly capable of not-entirely-democratic measures to bring their supporters to the voting booths in force while keeping their opponents away.

The Iraqi government envisioned in the concordat between the three men is made up of Shiites, Kurds, the Assyrian Democratic Party, the Iraqi Movement for National Consent led by Iyad Alawi and the communist party – arguably the best-organized political organization in the country and operator of Iraq’s most popular radio station. Long persecuted by Saddam Hussein, Iraq’s communists put on a rare show of public strength to celebrate his capture on December 14, bursting out into the streets of the capital for the first time and waving their red flags exultantly.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources in Iraq note that Talabani’s former rival and ally in northern Iraq, Kurdistan Democratic Party chief Massoud Barzani, has not been awarded a seat in the future government, likewise the Turkomens and Sunni Muslims – unless they can get out the vote in their respective regions. Some other veteran opposition groups, such as Ahmed Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress, seem destined to join them in the political wilderness, too.

Shiite-Sunni religious council to be formed

To cement their pact and foster inter-communal amity, Bremer, Talabani and Sistani agreed that the Kurdish leader must work quickly to create a joint Shiite-Sunni Muslim religious council.

The new body will give the Sunni Arabs – who despite making up only one-fifth of the population ruled the country under Saddam Hussein – a chance to choose a new leadership purged of Baath and other Saddam loyalist elements.

As a Sunni himself, he is in a position to seat some of his Kurdish supporters on the council, thereby making sure it is packed with a pro-government majority.

Photo: Pacific symbolism of Sistani's insignia

DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources in Iraq report that Talabani, wasting no time, has enlisted a prominent Sunni Arab, Dr. Suleiman Dori, as a councilor and will co-opt additional members from Sunni tribes and influential families willing to play ball with the Americans and offer allegiance to the future government. Talabani and Dori are attempting to calm the fears of tribes once loyal to Saddam and assure them they would not be disenfranchised as they have an important part to play in the future political life of the country

As the live wire in cobbling together a rainbow coalition administration, the Kurdish leader stands out as the natural candidate for prime minister of the new Iraq. The quickest-thinking and most talented politician in Iraq today, he also has some secret moves up his sleeve. In particular, he is after approval from Bremer and Sistani for his plan to create a rotating Iraqi presidency. Under that plan, a four-member presidential council would be appointed after the election, comprised of two Shi’ites, one Kurd and one Sunni. Each would hold the presidency for a four-month term. This formula would ensure that the presidency is no more than a sinecure while the real power  reposes in the hands of the prime minister, Talabani himself.

For the moment, Bremer and Sistani are willing to examine the proposal – but without any commitment.

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