Jaafari Out, Courtesy of Sistani?

Posted by Cutler on April 21, 2006

The decision by Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari to step aside is illuminating for several reasons. Press reports quote Kurdish politician Mahmoud Othman:

Jaafari’s change of heart followed meetings Wednesday in the Shi’ite holy city of Najaf between UN envoy Ashraf Qazi and both anti-American Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the nation’s most prestigious Shi’ite cleric. ”There was a signal from Najaf,” Othman said in an interview. ”Qazi’s meetings with [Sistani] and [Sadr] were the chief reason that untied the knot.”

Othman’s claims, if true, are significant for the following reasons:

1. Sistani has advanced the US agenda in Iraq. This can only be seen as consistent with pre-war planning by neo-conservatives who argued for an alliance between the US and Sistani. For an elaboration of this argument, see my article “Beyond Incompetence: Washingon’s War in Iraq.”

2. Sistani will not deal with the US directly, but he is willling to negotiate and compromise through the legitimating mediation of the UN. Hence the role of UN envoy Ashraf Qazi. Sistani used the same technique in February 2004 when he used the mediation efforts of UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi as cover for an agreement that allowed the US to formally transfer Iraqi sovereignty in June 2004 while postponing Iraqi elections until 2005.
3. Sistani seems willing and able to contain Sadr. Sadr provided Jaafari with much of his base within the Shiite Alliance and Jaafari’s retreat is only possible with the consent of Sadr. Until Sistani withdrew his support, Sadr and Jaafari had boldly defied US demands for Jaafari to step aside.

On the other hand, the end of the Jaafari impasse leaves several issues unresolved, especially the original reasons for US objections to Jaafari. It is possible–but unlikely–that the naming of a new Prime Minister will illuminate the key issues at stake for the US throughout the Jaafari impasse.

Why the original impasse? What does the US want in an Iraqi PM?

1. US Occupation/Status of Forces Agreement: According to a December 2005 AP report, Sadr pressed Jaafari to support a “code of honor” that demanded a timetable for the end of the U.S. military presence. If the US believed that Sadr made this a condition for his support for Jaafari and believed that Jaafari would make good on the promise, then this might provide the key to US objections.

Note, however, that the AP report alleges SCIRI also signed the declaration. This makes it difficult to understand why–after the December 2005 election–the US initially backed the SCIRI candidate, Adel Abdul Mahdi, who lost to Jaafari by one vote in Shiite Alliance balloting for the Prime Minister post.

2. Iran: Jaafari’s party is close to Iran.

Fine, but SCIRI is just as close to Iran. The Iran issue is an obstacle for Bush administration Arabists who never wanted elections or an alliance with Sistani. Bush administration Zionists, however, know Sistani is Persian but remain confident he is no friend of the incumbent “revolutionary” regime in Iran. The key point, from this perspective, is that Sistani is more powerful than any of the political parties. So, why fear Jaafari?

3. Appeasing the Sunni Minority: Jaafari was too closely identified with Shiite militias, Shiite death squads in the Iraqi Interior Ministry, and de-Baathification. Hence, the US pressure for a government of “national unity,” rather than Jaafari-led Shiite sectarianism.

First, the Shiite Interior Ministry is controlled by the Badr brigades, a militia linked to SCIRI, not Jaafari’s Dawa party. And it is far from clear that the Interior Ministry has been as independent of the US as has been alleged by the US in recent days. In any event, if SCIRI-backed death squads are the concern, why the US preference for SCIRI’s Adel Abdul Mahdi? Second, Sadr is the Shiite most inclined to build bridges with Sunni nationalists. Wouldn’t a Jaafari-Sadr alliance present the greatest opportunities for reaching out to Sunni parties, including those close to the insurgency?

4. Neo-Liberalism: Adel Abdul Mahdi is a leading Iraqi neo-liberal.

Fair enough. But it was the old, provisional Jaafari government that tried to cut gasoline subsidies only days after the December 2005 election. True, Sadr opposed these austerity measures and might have had more influence in any new Jaafari government.

5. Kurdistan: Jaafari met with the Turkish government–which opposes Kurdish independenc–wihtout first consulting the Iraqi Kurdish leadership. Sadr is also resistant to Kurdish demands for autonomy and control over the oil-rich city of Kirkuk.

Is the US ready to go to war with the Iraqi Shiite majority and Turkey in order to appease the Iraqi Kurds? The question must be rephrased in order to be answered. Are Bush administration Arabists ready to go to war with the Iraqi Shia? Yes. And the formation of a Sunni Arab/Sunni Kurdish bloc in opposition to the Iraqi Shia is the best way for mobilizing such an effort to restore Sunni Arab power in Iraq. Are Bush adminstration Zionists ready to alienate the Iraqi Shia? No. (For an explanation, see my article “Beyond Incompetence: Washingon’s War in Iraq.”)

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