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Opposing agendas snarl Shiite, Kurd cooperation in Iraq

While jockeying for power continued, the government announced the capture of two most-wanted figures.

By Jill CarrollContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / February 28, 2005



BAGHDAD

In the month since Iraqis rushed to the polls in support of democracy, getting anything done has proved a painstaking process of consensus-building that's now focused on two political groups whose interests are diametrically opposed.

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The national assembly that will write the country's permanent constitution cannot meet until key government positions are assigned. And central to determining how power will be allocated are the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA), religious Shiites who hold the majority of seats, and the once-powerless Kurds, who control the second-largest number of seats in the assembly.

The two groups are at loggerheads on a number of issues. The Shiites are determined to use Islam as a legal cornerstone, something the staunchly secular Kurds reject. The Kurds say they will cooperate only with those who offer them control of oil-rich Kirkuk - a promise that Ibrahim al-Jaafari, the Shiite choice for prime minister, has said the UIA will never make.

But the Kurds are showing little inclination, publicly at least, to compromise. "Even if we are forced to fight for our rights" with guns, we will, says Abduljalil Feili, the head of the Kurdistan Democratic Party in central and southern Iraq. "We prefer negotiations and a political solution. [But] we will use all the options we have."

As the political powers continued to jockey for influence, insurgent violence continued with a bomb in Mosul killing eight people Sunday. But the government also announced the detention Sunday of Sabawi Ibrahim al-Hasan al-Tikriti, Saddam Hussein's half-brother and No. 36 on the US list of 55 most-wanted figures. On Friday, officials said they had nabbed Abu Qutaybah, described as a key lieutenant of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, Al Qaeda's leader in Iraq.

The Kurds' assertiveness flows from their legal trump card. Under the transitional administrative law (TAL), written last spring by the Interim Governing Council with US guidance, a permanent constitution can be vetoed if three provinces do not ratify it. The Kurds control Iraq's three northern provinces.

"At the rate they are going, they will have to ask for an extension," in writing the constitution, says Nathan Brown, a professor of political science at George Washington University. "The really difficult issues are ones where we just don't have any idea how flexible they will be."

The current political wrangling has its source in laws designed to force disparate political groups to work together, and to prevent another authoritarian regime by giving significant power to minority groups.

Among other consensus-building mechanisms, the TAL requires two-thirds of the national assembly to approve the president, a new government, and a new constitution.

Those requirements have allowed small groups to play spoiler in order to extract promises of influence.

No decisions have been made on filling the presidency, vacancies for two deputies, and the cabinet. But one official from the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), a main group in the UIA, said they hope to meet this week with leaders of the UIA, Kurds, Interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, and President Ghazi Yawar, a leading Sunni politician, to negotiate.

The UIA wants to give moderate Sunnis at least three leading positions, possibly one of the deputy presidents, the speaker of the national assembly, and control of a key ministry, such as defense. Most Sunnis boycotted the election and there are fears the Sunni insurgency will worsen if they aren't included in the government.

"The train of democracy is starting down the line," says the SCIRI official. "Maybe we will stay in the station a few minutes, but the train is moving."

UIA officials are also proposing to create a national security position for Mr. Allawi, who has made an aggressive if unlikely bid to keep his job.

Andres Arato, a constitutional expert at the New School University in New York, says Kurdish demands and the two-thirds vote required to approve the new government and permanent constitution may delay the constitution longer than anyone expected. In that event, the country will have to continue to use the TAL, which he says could be destabilizing over the long term. "The very high threshold means you [may] never have a government," Mr. Arato says.

David Phillips, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, says that while Iraq is on an uncharted path, similar experiences in other countries have shown the importance of decentralizing authority. He says it is important to spread power among the country's governorates and local government. While the process is slow, it will probably continue to move forward, he says.

"It's definitely taking time for Iraqis to find common ground, but when you look at each threshold moment [previously] ... they waited until the 11th hour and cut deals," Phillips says. "That's what happening now."

Wire material was used in this report.

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