New York Times: Iraq’s dominant Shiite political bloc fractured on Sunday when its most powerful faction publicly demanded that the incumbent Shiite prime minister resign over his inability to form a unified government. The New York Times
By EDWARD WONG
and JOEL BRINKLEY
BAGHDAD, Iraq, April 2 Iraq’s dominant Shiite political bloc fractured on Sunday when its most powerful faction publicly demanded that the incumbent Shiite prime minister resign over his inability to form a unified government.
The split came as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Jack Straw, the British foreign minister, paid an urgent surprise visit to Baghdad leaders to convey in the most forceful terms yet that their patience for Iraq’s political paralysis is wearing out.
It was not clear whether the joint visit by Ms. Rice and Mr. Straw, the top emissaries of the two countries that led the invasion of Iraq three years ago, played a direct role in the fracturing of the Shiite bloc and whether that split would lead to forward movement on forming a new government, which has been stalled for months.
But the developments suggested a new phase in Iraq’s convulsions may have started by opening a possibly violent battle for the country’s top job between rival Shiite factions, which both have militias backing them up. The incumbent prime minister, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, has said he will fight to keep his job, and his principal supporter is Moktada al-Sadr, a rebellious Shiite cleric whose Mahdi Army militia has resorted to violence many times to enforce his wishes.
Ms. Rice and Mr. Straw, who came here unannounced from a meeting in Britain punctuated by antiwar protests, told reporters that they did not want to intervene in the dispute over the prime minister. But at the same time, they pointed out that Mr. Jaafari had been unable to win enough political support to form a government since his nomination on Feb. 12.
“They’ve got to get a prime minister who can actually form the government,” Ms. Rice said after meetings inside the Green Zone, the fortified part of Baghdad that houses the Iraqi government and American Embassy. Those meetings included a visibly uncomfortable photo session with Mr. Jaafari.
Ms. Rice added, “I told them that a lot of treasure, a lot of human treasure, has been put on the line to give Iraq the chance to have a democratic future.”
Neither Ms. Rice or Mr. Straw would specify what specific pressure, if any, was brought to bear on the Iraqi leaders. But Ms. Rice’s references to the loss of lives more than 2,300 American soldiers alone have died here since the March 2003 invasion and the enormous sums of money spent clearly reflected the growing impatience in Washington and London for more progress.
The fracturing of the Shiites became clear in late Sunday afternoon, as a senior official in the leading Shiite party, Sheik Jalaladin al-Sagheir, said in a telephone interview that his party was putting forward another candidate to replace Mr. Jaafari. “I’ve asked Jaafari to resign from his job,” said Sheik Sagheir, a deputy to the Shiite bloc’s leader, Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim. “The prime minister should have national consensus inside the Parliament, and he should have the support of the international body.”
Any dispute between the Shiite bloc’s two biggest factions Mr. Hakim’s party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, and the party led by Mr. Sadr carries with it the possibility of armed violence.
Both factions are longtime rivals, have backing from Iran and operate militias with members in the Iraqi security forces. Their militias fought street battles last August throughout Baghdad and the south, even hijacking double-decker buses to storm office buildings.
Nasr al-Saadi, a Sadr member of Parliament, said Sunday that Mr. Jaafari still had the backing of the Sadrists. “He was elected in a democratic way,” Mr. Saadi said, referring to the fact that Mr. Jaafari won his nomination in a secret ballot among the Shiite bloc’s 130 members. “This is democracy. I haven’t been informed that the Shiite alliance will change candidates.”
The eruption among the Shiites could also completely redraw Iraq’s political coalitions, if some Shiite politicians leave the bloc amid the feuding to side with other groups in the 275-member Parliament. That would weaken the religious Shiites, and it is one of the great fears of the most powerful Shiite cleric in Iraq, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. Since cobbling together the fragile Shiite coalition in late 2004, the ayatollah and his aides have been working hard to keep it together to ensure that the religious Shiites assume power over Iraq’s minority Sunni Arab and Kurdish populations through elections.
The Supreme Council’s defection came a day after a senior Shiite politician, Kassim Daoud, called for Mr. Jaafari to step down. Mr. Daoud’s name has been mentioned as a possible replacement for Mr. Jaafari, as has that of Vice President Adel Abdul Mahdi, a deputy in the Supreme Council. Mr. Abdul Mahdi lost to Mr. Jaafari by just one vote February’s balloting.
Negotiations to form the government have been deadlocked over Mr. Jaafari’s nomination. The Iraqi constitution gives the largest bloc in Parliament the right to appoint a candidate, but a two-thirds vote of the entire assembly is needed to install the government. In late February, the main Sunni Arab, Kurdish and secular blocs demanded that the Shiites withdraw Mr. Jaafari and name someone else.
Last Tuesday, Mr. Hakim fired the opening salvo in his campaign to unseat Mr. Jaafari by having his aides tell reporters that the American ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad, had informed Mr. Hakim that President Bush prefers another candidate. That set off a furor here, with Mr. Jaafari saying in an interview that the Americans should stop interfering. “I accept this position because it’s an Iraqi, democratic choice,” he said.
Mr. Hakim, a former exile in Iran, and Mr. Mahdi were among the dozen Iraqi leaders who met with Ms. Rice and Mr. Straw on Sunday.
Others in the Shiite bloc who oppose Mr. Jaafari include the Fadhila Party, led by a fundamentalist cleric who has called for Mr. Khalilzad’s resignation, and many independent politicians.
Mr. Mahdi is considered the front-runner to replace Mr. Jaafari, but a compromise candidate could end up on top because of the enmity of the Sadrists toward Mr. Mahdi and the Supreme Council. Options include Hussain Shahristani, a former nuclear physicist, and Ali Allawi, the finance minister and a cousin of Ahmad Chalabi, the former Pentagon favorite.
Mr. Mahdi visited Washington last fall and was believed to have the backing of the Americans at the time. A rotund, bearish-looking man, he is a Western-educated proponent of free market economics, having disavowed earlier Maoist beliefs. He owns a house in the south of France, and American officials hope his exposure to the West tempers Islamist ideals honed by years in Iran.
Ms. Rice and Mr. Straw flew into Baghdad in an unusual rainstorm early Sunday and was driven to the Green Zone in armored military vehicles.
Sectarian violence and migrations have been soaring across Iraq partly because of the power vacuum, and American officials including Ms. Rice say a new government must be formed quickly to help stabilize the situation. “The Iraqi people are losing patience and that’s showing up in polling, it’s showing up, I’m told, in cartoons, it’s showing up in the news coverage here,” she said.
In the evening, after the rains had ended, Ms. Rice said she had carried “a very direct message” to the Iraqis, and they had responded favorably. Asked whether she had indicated to Mr. Jaafari that he drop out, she said only that “the message to all parties” is form a government quickly. She added that Iraq’s leaders “have to realize there is a particular urgency to this case.”
Within an hour of landing here, the two met Mr. Jaafari at his residence, a Saddam Hussein-era palace with an artificial lake inside the Green Zone. Ms. Rice appeared tense, her smile forced, as she posed for photos with Mr. Jaafari a clear contrast to her cheerful demeanor with other leaders later. Mr. Jaafari sat stiffly beside her.
Ms. Rice was to have stayed in Blackburn, England, through the weekend, visiting Mr. Straw in his home constituency in return for his visit to her childhood home, Birmingham, Ala., last October. But she decided more than a week ago to make this trip and to invite Mr. Straw to come along on her plane. Britain maintains thousands of troops in southern Iraq, and the two decided to keep their trip secret for security reasons.
Ms. Rice was last here in October, Mr. Straw in February. They made plans to spend the night a rarity for a visiting American official, particularly since an insurgent rocket attack on the Al Rashid hotel in 2003 while Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz was staying there.
The decision to stay overnight was intended as something of a political statement. Last month, a senior official noted there was concern within the administration that it seemed hypocritical for top officials to assert that progress was being made in Iraq while refusing to spend more than a few hours here at a time. Visiting dignitaries also rarely leave the Green Zone.
The world outside the zone is often awash in blood. The American military said Sunday that two soldiers had died from the crash on Saturday evening of an Apache attack helicopter, shot down south of Baghdad. Two other soldiers were killed Saturday in Baghdad by a roadside bomb, and a soldier died from noncombat injuries sustained in an operation on March 30 in Kirkuk.
In Diyala Province, gunmen killed two civilians in the town of Balad Ruz, and insurgents blew up a Shiite mosque northeast of Baquba. A policeman in Baghdad was gunned down, as was a lawyer in Basra. Six bodies were found in Baghdad, two of them abducted hospital workers; all had been shot in the head.
Armed men kidnapped Waleed Subhi al-Dulaimi, the official in charge of religious tourism.
Abdul-Razzaq al-Saiedi and Qais Mizher contributed reporting for this article.