Iraq's next big hurdle: unity government

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

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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

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.

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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.

Critics say Mr. Jabr has turned the Iraqi police force into a glorified Shiite militia that indiscriminately targets Sunni Arab neighborhoods and cities in an attempt to quash the insurgency.

"We must have the Defense and the Interior to ensure the security of our cities, and to stop the terrorizing of our supporters," says Salman al-Jumayli, a spokesperson for the Sunni Accordance Front, which has 44 seats in the coming parliament.

For Shiites such concessions are unlikely. After decades of suffering under the old regime, the recently empowered Shiites are not about to relinquish control of the ministries that were responsible for much of that oppression. "We won the elections and these ministries are our right," says Jawad al-Malaki, a leading member of the Shiite Dawa Party.

The issue of de- Baathification - a ban on former Baath Party members in government - will also figure prominently in the dealmaking. Shiites call many of the Sunni Arabs who have risen to the fore in recent months Saddamists, Baathists, and outright terrorists.

"The Shiites have turned de-Baathification into de-Sunnification," says Mr. Jumayli. "They're only targeting Sunnis and they've turned it into a weapon to get rid of all their political opponents."

Shiite unwillingness to negotiate on the issue has added to the Sunni Arabs' sense of exclusion and marginalization. It has also meant that even those posts that have gone to Sunni Arabs, such as the outgoing Ministry of Defense, have gone to Sunnis handpicked by Shiites, who are largely out of step with the majority of the country's Sunni Arabs.

What to do with the country's infant Constitution is another issue negotiators will have to address.

The drafting process and referendum on the historic charter last fall signaled a turning point in Sunni Arab willingness to engage with the political process. Their reluctant endorsement, however, came with a condition: The document could be amended at a later date to strengthen language aimed at preventing the breakup of Iraq. Earlier this month, some Shiite leaders seemed to be reneging on that agreement, calling any substantial changes to the Constitution unacceptable.

With such significant differences to overcome, many worry the Shiites will decide that a true national unity government is more trouble than it's worth, and team up with the Kurds as they did in the last government.

But even if Iraq's disparate factions find a way to put aside their differences to form an inclusive government, true national unity remains elusive, says Mohammed al-Sheikhly, president of the Center for Transitional Justice in Iraq.

"We got rid of Saddam Hussein, but now we have 40 Saddam Husseins, a bunch of political leaders with a power complex, who only want to rule. They are all hypocrites whose programs talk about national unity, and a united Iraq, but whose actions say the opposite."

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