Ceremonial gaffe mars appointment of Iraqi Prime Minister

By Patrick Cockburn in Arbil, nothern Iraq

08 April 2005


The Shia leader Ibrahim al-Jaafari has been chosen as the Prime Minister of Iraq by the Presidential Council after prolonged wrangling between the victors in the election nine weeks ago.

The solemnity of the moment yesterday was marred when the new Iraqi President, Jalal Talabani, mysteriously left the ceremony. When he reemerged he explained that he had momentarily forgotten the name of the new Prime Minister whom he was appointing.

Dr Jaafari, the mild-mannered leader of the Islamic Dawa Party, did not look disturbed by Mr Talabani's sudden memory loss. But other members of the United Iraqi Alliance, the Shia coalition which won a majority in the 275-member parliament in the election on 30 January, saw it as a possible bad omen for future relations between Kurds and Shias. Abbas Hassan al-Bayati, a leader of the Alliance, complained: "This happened because of sheer bad management."

The Kurds and Shia, wholly dominant in the parliament because of Sunni Arab abstention, regard each other with suspicion. This has led to very slow progress in allocating jobs in the new government. Agreement has still to be reached in appointing the ministers of defence, the interior and oil.

The Shias want a share in control of security. They covet the interior ministry in particular and would like to bring the Mukhabarat, the intelligence agency, under their control.

Dr Jaafari, a physician exiled for two decades, first in Iran and then in Britain, will have his work cut out forming a government as he is supposed to do over the next two weeks. He is also hampered by the disunity of the Shia coalition to which he belongs. It is a mixture of religious and secular parties whose electoral success stemmed largely from the support of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the revered Shia leader. Dr Jaafari is considered to lack a forceful personality by other Iraqi political leaders and he has got the job of Prime Minister in part because he had fewer enemies than other candidates.

As President Mr Talabani should supposedly play a ceremonial role but the vastly experienced and powerful Kurdish leader evidently intends to play a prominent role in future. His predecessor, the Sunni Arab businessmen Ghazi al-Yawer, was seen in Iraq as a lightweight and an ineffective politician despite being feted in Washington and London.

Celebrations of Mr Talabani's appointment as President continued far into the night in Kurdistan. The Kurds may now be at the peak of their strength in Iraq because they are better organised and led than the Shia parties. They would therefore like to lock in place a constitution guaranteeing them a degree of autonomy close to independence. They also want to see their possession of the oil city of Kirkuk formally acknowledged. The Shia would prefer a much looser understanding on both issues at this stage.

The creation of a government is also bedevilled by the search for Sunni politicians who can be appointed. There are only 17 Sunni members of the new assembly and even these are dubiously representative of their community. Ali Muthana al-Dahri, the spokesman for the influential Sunni Association of Muslim Scholars, said: "We are not related to any process in this matter of choosing candidates."

The Kurds, with 75 members of the new parliament, have tried all along to bring into a new government the supporters of Iyad Allawi, the interim prime minister, who won some 14 per cent of the vote in the election. Most of those who voted for him were secular Shia. But the Shia coalition does not want to dilute its power in the new government and is hostile to Mr Allawi's conciliation of former Baathists.