Thorny issues loom for Iraq leaders

In the short term, the risk is a failure to govern while focusing on big constitutional issues.

Breaking the deadlock over forming Iraq's interim government came down, in the end, to a simple compromise: Kurds dropped their immediate demand that the oil-rich city of Kirkuk be added to their autonomous section of Iraq, and Shiite Arabs said they wouldn't insist on dismantling the Kurds' peshmerga militia.

The country's two main political powers have essentially deferred these and other difficult issues until a time when Iraq's politics may be calmer and the two sides may be closer. It's a position that many observers expected to have been reached within weeks of the election.

But this was a compromise between radically different factions in a country where threats and the gun have long stood in for dialogue.

That an agreement was achieved is a sign of hope that Iraq's political learning curve is accelerating. That it took so long, analysts say, is a sign of the fault lines along which the transition could break down. The two months it took to form a government, analysts say, means a new constitution is unlikely to be written and ratified by an Aug. 15 deadline.

"There's still a lot of work to do, but perhaps they're getting the experience they would have lacked earlier," says Nathan Brown, a senior analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, D.C. "The problem is that their deadline is now extremely tight, and a lot of the key compromises were over positions and personalities. It's not clear that they've come to understandings on principles."

Iraqi politicians must now turn toward issues over which there is little consensus, even as an insurgency led by Sunni Arab fighters, who largely boycotted the elections, rages. In the short term, the risk is a failure to govern while focusing on big constitutional issues; in the long term, there could be a breakdown between Iraq's Kurds and Arabs.

The Kurds, who have been at war with the central state for most of Iraq's 85-year history, still want the new constitution to grant them Kirkuk. Iraq's Arab majority, both Shiite and Sunni, remains determined not to give it to them. The Kurds also want the autonomy of their army guaranteed, something most other Iraqis see as destabilizing.

A gulf also exists between Shiite leaders who want a strong Islamic flavor to the new constitution, and the Kurds, who favor a more secular model.

"If you look at the constitutional issues, it almost starts looking like Arab-Israel negotiations, where the so-called final-status issues were going to be left on the table till the end because they were so thorny,'' says Charles Tripp, a leading historian of Iraq at London's School of Oriental and African Studies. "But in Iraq, they have to deal with their version of final-status issues right at the beginning."

Under Iraq's Transitional Administrative Law, the appointment of parliament's three-man presidency council Thursday required a two-thirds vote in parliament. The presidency council, in turn, unanimously appoints the prime minister, who in turn names his cabinet.

This structure led to two months of haggling over a deal between the United Iraqi Alliance, the Shiite Islamist coalition that won 51 percent of assembly seats, and the Kurdish Alliance of the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), which came in second.

The deal covers almost all of the cabinet posts, the premiership, and the three-man presidency, led by former Kurdish rebel leader Jalal Talabani, Shiite Islamist Adel Abdul Mahdi, and Sunni tribal leader Sheikh Ghazi al-Yawar. The three men officially agreed to appoint Shiite Islamist Ibrahim al-Jaafari as prime minister this weekend.

Mr. Jaafari is now expected to divide cabinet positions among the factions who supported the presidency. Current foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari, a Kurd, will retain his job. Kurds will also be given seven or eight smaller ministries and a deputy prime minister slot, said Shiite and Kurdish leaders.

Ibrahim Baher al-Uloom, a Shiite politician, and other Shiite and Kurdish leaders, said the UIA will control the ministries of interior, finance, electricity, transportation, communications, health, youth, and higher education. The position of oil minister, traditionally a key source of patronage, remains disputed.

UIA leaders said Wednesday that the Kurds had agreed to let a Shiite become oil minister in exchange for a softening on the peshmerga issue. But Thursday, Shiite officials said the KDP half of the Kurdish Alliance began agitating for the post.

The PUK's leader is President Talabani. Though the parties collaborated in this election, a civil war between them in the 1990s left them with separate regional capitals and parliaments.

Mr. Tripp says the treatment of cabinet posts as patronage tools was a factor behind the failure of Iraq's parliament under a constitutional monarch, and the 1958 coup that overthrew the monarchy. He also worries that ethnic and religious divisions will dog efforts to write the constitution, because at the moment there seems to be little common ground.

Worst of all, a failure to restore security or improve the economy quickly could damage average Iraqis' support for the system, as happened before 1958.

"The pattern of the possible unraveling of parliamentary democracy in the face of the security problem is all there,'' says Tripp. "Can people avoid it? I'm a great believer that no one is condemned by the past, but it's going to take incredible vision from Iraq's new leaders."

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