The Iraq Voter Has Opted for a Shiite-Kurdish Coalition in Baghdad

Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani’s United Iraqi (Shiite) Alliance of 16 parties pulled ahead of the pack in Iraq’s first democratic election, earning 48% and a block of 132 seats in the new national assembly – but not an absolute majority. In an earlier report published on February 4, debkafile predicted that the UIA would not win a majority of the new house despite its claim of 60 of the electorate. Iraq’s 8.55 million voters (58% turnout) awarded 25.4% to the United Kurdish List, placing it in second place, followed by interim PM Allawi’s list with a disappointing 14%.
Despite the Sunni boycott, there was a 29% turnout in the Sunni Salah-eddin province.
The message the Iraqi voter broadcast loud and clear, therefore, was that any future regime in Baghdad must be based on a Shiite-Kurdish coalition. No single faction can rule alone.
US analysts pretty well predicted the results. What did surprise them, according to debkafile‘s Iraqi sources, was the rapid breakup of Sistani’s alliance days before the results were published under the pressure of intense jockeying for the premiership by heads of four of the UIA component lists: the al Daawa chairman Ibrahim al-Jaafar, the interim finance minister Adel Mehdi of SCIRI (Supreme Council of the Iraqi Revolutionary Council), Dr. Mufak al Rubai, interim prime minister Iyad Allawi’s former national security adviser, and Ahmad Chalabi, head of the Iraqi National Congress.
US troops broke into Chalabi’s home nine months ago. In Washington, he was accused of spying for Tehran. So far have his fortunes changed since then that last week, Number Two at the US embassy in Baghdad, Robert Ford, paid him a visit to discuss a political deal.
According to debkafile‘s Baghdad sources, the United States government does not favor any of the four candidates for prime minister. Ambassador John Negroponte and Ford are making every effort to keep Iyad Allawi in the job. Intense wheeling and dealing has been afoot in recent days to enhance his chances. The visit to Chalabi was intended to persuade him to join a coalition led by Allawi (the two are kinsmen and long-standing rivals) and supported by the Kurds. Allawi is offering his fellow Shiite high government office with guarantees that he will be treated as a senior partner in state decision-making. Chalabi, basking in his new popularity, sees no reason to be satisfied with less than the premiership for himself.
The plum Washington is offering the Kurds for their support is the largely ceremonial post of president for the PUK leader Jalal Talabani.
This coalition would place at least four stabilizing blocks in place in Baghdad.
One, the president would be a Kurd – but also a Sunni rather than a Shiite, and therefore a counterweight to Shiite domination of the assembly and government. This appointment might also partly melt Sunni Arab hostility to the new regime. Their hostility may not be as uniform as feared. The Sunni election boycott declared at the cost of their parliamentary representation was not watertight, as evidenced by the 29% voter turnout in the Sunni Salah Eddin province. The hope is that Sunni leaders will be persuaded to take part in the drafting of Iraq’s new constitution, a key to Iraq’s future destiny no less than the general election itself.
Two, Kurdish support for Allawi would guarantee a pro-American prime minister at the helm of the new government. A two-thirds majority of the national assembly is required to choose a president and his two deputies, who will then choose the prime minister. This places the Kurds in the position of tie-breaker.
Three, Command of the national presidency may temper Kurdish separatist predilections and slow their pell-mell rush towards an independent Kurdistan.
Four, The incumbent president, the Sunni Muslim Ghazi Yawar, or a member of his clan, would be freed for the post of national assembly speaker, reserving this important post for a Sunni.
Two Sunnis – one of whom is also a Kurd – and one secular Shiite would thus hold Iraq’s top positions of power. This powerful troika should be able to counterbalance the Sistani’s bloc’s command of almost half the national assembly.
Saturday, February 12, the day before the election results were released, Allawi went to Kurdistan and met Talabani. debkafile‘s Middle East experts have noted the strange irony of the Bush administration being close to the goal of a regime in Baghdad formed on lines very similar to the Lebanese government. In Beirut too, Sunnis, Christians and Shiites co-exist. This model may suit Iraq. On the other hand, Lebanon underwent decades of civil war until it acquired political equilibrium.
For the moment, Washington’s immediate concerns are:
A. Steady progress in shaping an effective Iraqi army and security force, in which the Americans have sunk vast amounts and huge efforts, to turn the tide of insurgency and terror and provide a solid prop for stable government. The failure of the UIA to attain an absolute majority in the national assembly is therefore good news. Absolute Shiite control of government and legislature might have tempted them to go all the way and pack the high Iraqi command with Shiite officers loyal to Ayatollah Sistani and the prime minister, thereby undoing long months of US endeavor.
B. A similar consideration applies to Iraqi intelligence which is controlled today by the American CIA. Scrapping the top level of Iraqi intelligence in favor of Shiite officers picked for their political allegiances would have dealt a major setback to the painstaking US offensive against terrorism.
C. As the last DEBKA-Net-Weekly 193 reported Friday, February 11:
A public debate is bedeviling the Bush administration over whether the current occupant of the White House helped establish another fundamentalist Shiite regime in the Middle East, this time by fostering Iraq’s first free elections.
The United States is still haunted by the memory of how the newly-established Islamic Republic of Iran under its revolutionary leader Ayatollah Khomeini interfered in the 1980 US presidential election – and effectively cost Jimmy Carter a second term – by delaying the release of US hostages seized in the American embassy in Tehran until Ronald Reagan’s inauguration.
America has stumbled before in rushing to promote regime change in a troubled region. The Taliban was fostered to boot the Red Army out of Afghanistan. Later, these fundamentalists became a key factor in al Qaeda’s September 11, 2001 attacks in New York and Washington and were subsequently booted out themselves in a second regime change in Kabul.
Washington will find reassurance in the election results released Sunday. The vote reduced the prospects of Iraq becoming an Iran-style theocracy, for the time being. Sistani will certainly fight for a constitution that places the Sharia above secular legislation – or at the very least one that confirms Iraq’s Islamic identity – but he is not as fanatical as his peers in Tehran about the creation of an Islamic republic.
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