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Iraq's next big hurdle: unity government

Security, top slots are the focus of talks among Sunnis and Shiites.

By Charles LevinsonCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / January 23, 2006


When Iraq's election results were released Friday, it was no surprise that religious Shiites dominated the polls.

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But the hard numbers have given new steam to Iraq's politicians, who are wheeling and dealing to find enough common ground on which to build the country's first freely elected four-year government.

In a process that could stretch into April, Iraq's factions will decide on a governing program, agree on whether the new Constitution can be changed, and haggle over the crucial positions of president, prime minister, and cabinet ministers.

The Shiite alliance, with 128 of 275 seats, will dominate the talks, but its members must reach out to others to find the two-thirds majority needed to form a government. Whom they tap as allies or exclude may affect stability for years to come, experts say.

All of Iraq's politicians are touting national unity and the need for Sunni Arab participation in the government. It is widely believed to be a necessary step toward taking the steam out of a relentless insurgency.

But those politicians have very different ideas of what national unity and Sunni participation actually entails..

"There is no preordained outcome that we are actually going to get a deal involving all three of these groups," says one Western diplomat in Baghdad. "I can only tell you that they are all saying they are willing to explore it."

Shiites are insisting that the election results dictate the distribution of the spoils, meaning they should be given the majority of the cabinet posts. The Sunni Arabs are pushing for a piece of the pie that may not be justified by vote tallies alone. They hold a powerful bargaining chip: sway with the Sunni-led insurgency.

"If the country is going to be unified, then you have to take into account the armed resistance, which continues to show that it is capable of baring its teeth," says Wamidh Nadhmi, a professor of political science at Baghdad University. "Dealing with the resistance means making the Sunni politicians happy."

It's a reality that infuriates Shiites, who feel the threat of violence is compelling them to relinquish power they won fairly. If violence works for Sunni Arabs, they wonder aloud, then why should Shiites continue to show restraint?

"They can't do both at the same time, resistance and violence on one side, and playing politics on the other side. This is unacceptable," says Adel Abdel Mahdi, a powerful Shiite and a frontrunner to replace Ibrahim Jaafari as prime minister.

If current rhetoric is more than just political brinkmanship and tough talk, then Iraq's Sunni Arab and Shiite parties have seemingly irreconcilable differences on issues such as security policy, the exclusion of former Baathists from government, and amending the Constitution.

Among the principal stumbling blocks in negotiations is control of the ministries of Interior and Defense. The current minister of Interior, Bayan Jabr, essentially the country's chief law enforcement officer, is loyal to Badr, the Shiite militia aligned with the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), the core of the Shiite political alliance.