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Iraq’s National Assembly Approves Partial Cabinet

April 28, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT
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MARGARET WARNER: Three months of political deadlock in Iraq ended today with a show of hands in its new national assembly. By an overwhelming vote, the legislators approved the country’s first democratic government in 50 years.

The last hurdle was cleared when the new prime minister, Ibrahim al- Jaafari announced he had finally chosen his cabinet. The Shiite prime minister spoke to the national assembly before the vote.

IBRAHIM AL-JAAFARI (Translated): The fundamental quality we stressed was honesty. You know well that corruption has become widespread due to an accumulation of problems from the old regime. Therefore we are taking up the responsibility of administrative reform.

MARGARET WARNER: The new cabinet ministers reflect the country’s diverse sectarian mix: fifteen Shiites, seven Kurds, four Sunnis, and a Christian. Six women are also among them. The most prominent jobs were also divvied up along sectarian lines, though there are no Sunnis in the top ranks.

The lineup: as interior minister, Shiite Bayan Jabr; as minister of foreign affairs, Hoshyar Zebari, a Kurd, and as finance minister, Shiite Ali Allawi, a cousin of the outgoing interim prime minister, Iyad Allawi. The prime minister said he was temporarily unable to fill five cabinet posts, among them the three key ministries of defense, oil and electricity.

So for now, Al-Jaafari will also act as his own minister of defense. And two of his deputy prime ministers will take temporary cabinet posts as well. Ahmed Chalabi, the Shiite exile and former Pentagon favorite, will fill in as acting oil minister, and Rowsch Shaways, a Kurd, will fill in as minister of electricity. The new government will work under a three-man presidential council chosen earlier this month.

President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, and Vice Presidents Adel Abdul Mahdi, a Shiite, and Gazi Al-Yawar, a Sunni. Al-Yawar complained today about the lack of Sunni representation in the top cabinet ranks. “We’re not happy,” he said, “but we have to wait until all the nominations are permanent before we do anything.” The new government will remain in office until a new constitution is drafted and approved and new national elections take place, scheduled for late this year.

MARGARET WARNER: A cabinet and a government, finally, three months after the Iraqi elections. To assess what this new government will mean for Iraq, we get three views. Adeed Dawisha is a professor of Middle Eastern politics at Miami University of Ohio. Tareq Ismael holds the same post at the University of Calgary in Canada. They were both born and raised in Iraq. And Fouad Ajami, director of Middle East Studies at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies; he’s just back from ten days in Iraq. Welcome to you all.

Fouad Ajami, let me start with you. Three months of this haggling and negotiating, was it worth it? That is did it produce a government that you think is capable and ready to really go to work on the problems that confront Iraq?

FOUAD AJAMI: Well, Margaret, I wish I could give you a sense of the excitement. I attended a session of the Iraqi National Assembly, and I was there as what we call haggling, which is really what democracy is all about. So there is tremendous excitement in Iraq about this democratic process. There was frustration that it took so long, it took three months, as you rightly said. But I think we have a cabinet that reflects the diversity of Iraq, that reflects the people of Iraq, and again your own lead tells it all.

You have Sunnis; you have Shias; you have Kurds, you have six women, now clearly the Sunni Arab representation is not up to speed and not up to what all the protagonists would like it to be. But that’s not the final call; there are a couple of cabinet posts yet to be filled, there are a couple of deputy prime minister positions yet to be filled and the Sunni Arabs will have a claim on these positions, there is no doubt. And I return from Iraq with tremendous sense of excitement about this process.

MARGARET WARNER: Professor Ismael, I know you aren’t just back from Iraq, but do you think the Iraqi people should have the same kind of confidence that finally they’ve got a government that is really ready to go to work?

TAREQ ISMAEL: I wish I can agree with Fouad’s assessment. I am one of those who just came back from Jordan and met with so many Iraqis, I was actually advised not to go to Iraq, but I had the pleasure of meeting with so many Iraqi officials and academicians in addition to a lot of average citizens and businessmen. The assessment is the other way around really.

Everybody seemed to think, well, majority of population seemed to think this is a good step. It’s a step that is needed to take care of the very unpleasant situation Iraq lives in. However, all of them seem to agree on a number of basic assumptions, chiefly among them the simplification that we seem to hear very often, and that is basically that Shia, Sunnis, and others, Christians and what have you aren’t really the problem — it’s a bigger issue than that.

The face of Iraqi politics has changed and as such it is a contradiction to accept sectarian designations as a reflection of the real political social and environment of the Iraqi mosaic. It’s much more complicated than that.

MARGARET WARNER: But I mean are you saying — let me interrupt you, sir — are you saying that you think the sectarian division is somehow damaging, or the fact that the posts were allocated this way?

TAREQ ISMAEL: Well, I’m afraid that’s my view, basically because if you are talking about Iraqis taking charge of their own affairs, you should first consider other alternative than divisive segments or problems within the society, and this has been one of the major problems Iraq ever had, and more importantly, the base of Iraqi politics has been changed to a religious one, and even at that, who represents whom is a very important issue, i.e., who is in charge, let’s say, of the destiny of Shiites, or who represents the Shiites.

There are so many complicated issues within the Iraqi Shia community, among them for example, the Arabs versus non-Arabs. Sistani is a great man, is a great religious leader but he is really not looked upon as a genuine Iraqi if you will representative of Iraqi, Arab Shiites –

MARGARET WARNER: Sir, let me -

TAREQ ISMAEL: So on this basis even that has to be questioned.

MARGARET WARNER: Okay. Let me interrupt you just to bring Professor Dawisha in on this. Professor Dawisha, do you think it’s troubling that the process took this long and that the ultimate lineup is being sort of analyzed in sectarian terms, and do you think that — do you agree with Professor Ismael that that somehow portends ill for their future of them cooperating together, which is I think what he was driving at?

ADEED DAWISHA: Yeah. Well, look, I certainly, given the choice, I would say that we should eschew sectarianism and ethnicity. I would have been much happier if we had had a government that is based on functional competencies, rather than on these sectarian and ethnic divisions. The problem is that I’m also a realist, and this is the way Iraq is today; it is certainly divided along ethnic and sectarian lines. People do project these sectarian ethnic loyalties, and sometimes in fact they find them as the paramount ones, as opposed to an Iraqi identity.

By the way this is not something that occurred overnight. This is something that was forced vigorously by Saddam’s virulently sectarian regime itself. And so if you have, if you are a realist and you have these kind of communal divisions within Iraq, I would have thought that the choices that Mr. Jaafari had as the prime minister were indeed very limited. I mean, in a sense he wanted to be inclusive. There are these three or four groups within Iraq, they tried to bring everybody in, in a sense, in order to get everyone to think in terms of Iraq as a whole rather than their various sects. It just the reality of what Iraq is today.

MARGARET WARNER: Professor Ajami, does the lineup as we lined it up there say to you, (a), Shiite dominance, and (b), the fact that a Shiite is interior minister, do you think that’s going to mean for instance a purge of really all Sunnis, all former Baathists from the domestic security force, something that the Americans frankly are quite concerned about.

FOUAD AJAMI: Well, Margaret, I don’t really necessarily think so. I mean, if you take a look at the makeup of this cabinet, okay, fine, Shiites, the interior minister, the defense ministry is still open and still up for grabs, and the defense minister is likely to be given to a Sunni Arab.

The problem with the presentation of the Sunni Arabs is that they stayed out of the national assembly, they stayed out of the political life, and while the Kurds and the Shia had exiled politicians and had organizations in Kurdistan and in Najaf and outside Iraq that represented them, the Sunni Arabs were poorly led because they had bet it all on the old order, on the old Saddam regime. So I don’t think that – I don’t look at these people by the way as Sunnis and Shias and Kurds. Some may be ethnically based. I think of my friend from the Kurdish community, I think about the brilliant young technocrat – he’s going to be minister of planning; I think about Ahmed Chalabi as an Iraqi patriot; so he’s a Shia Arab, but he is also about other things. So I think we should just give these people some chance.

Again and again I tell me colleagues, if they’d only been there and they’d seen the enthusiasm in the national assembly for this new political life, we would give this cabinet a chance, and we’d give these new people a crack at political life. This is the first independent government because the interim government of Iyad Allawi was riddled with corruption, and it was in the shadow of an American occupation. This now is the beginning of a new road.

MARGARET WARNER: Professor Ismael, do you think that — I notice that al-Yawar today though he complained about the lack of Sunni representation, he was also still holding the door open, he was saying, well, let’s wait and see how the final posts are allocated.

Do you think this government still can be a government that will make Sunnis in Iraq feel included, feel part of the process, feel they have a steak in the success of this government, and let me just add to that, that it might also dampen the insurgency.

TAREQ ISMAEL: Well, I first disagree with Fouad’s analysis that all Sunnis or majority of the Sunnis support Saddam Hussein and his regime and they somehow were part of his flock; that’s not really the case. Saddam Hussein with all his evils was bad to anybody who was not and brutal to anybody who was not within his groups.

And unfortunately, a lot of the groups that we are now witnessing as part of the existing division of governmental posts, all these groups at one time and in some cases till very recently until the overthrow of Saddam Hussein were cross associates of his. So the –

MARGARET WARNER: Can you talk about -

TAREQ ISMAEL: — let me just –

MARGARET WARNER: Talk about the Sunnis going forward.

TAREQ ISMAEL: Let me just go back to my issue. The whole notion of Sunni and Shia is very corrupt, I think; we should speak of Iraqis taking hold of their environment. Yes, I agree, they are part of the Iraqi — we agree that Shias and Sunnis and others make up the Iraqi, if you will, political and social mosaic. But if you start changing the base and distributing power on the basis of their religious affiliations, you’re doing three things.

One, you very likely would be given the most powerful influential voice to those who are organized and usually they are those who are more extremes than the others. That’s one. The second, which is very important, by alienating the other religious groupings and channeling politics through religious channels, you create a religious response to the issue.

MARGARET WARNER: Okay -

TAREQ ISMAEL: Third, which is very important, in this process you destroy any possibility of others who are non-sectarians to be at best crushed by the forces of extremism.

MARGARET WARNER: Professor, I have to interrupt because we only have a couple minute for Professor Dawisha. Just tell me your view on the impact this is going to have in the Sunni community; will it encourage moderators or extremists; will they feel part of the process?

ADEED DAWISHA: Well, I think that in a way, the Jaafari has been bending over backwards to bring in all the groups, Sunnis, Kurds and others. I wonder what the response would have been if al-Jaafari and the United Iraqi Alliance had said, look, we have 51 and a half percent of the seats in the national assembly, and therefore we’re going to have a government that is fully Shiite, or at least whose members come exclusively from the United Iraqi Alliance – I mean, I wonder what kind of outcry this would have created in Iraq.

So the fact that the United Iraqi Alliance, the Shiite community and Jaafari have been bending over backwards to bring in the Sunnis, should be seen by the Sunnis as a positive thing, that they are reaching out to them, even though the majority of them did not participate in the elections, and I think that over time, certainly not in the long-term, but even in the short-term the Sunni community will realize that they have to participate in the process. They are part and parcel of the body politic of Iraq and what the Jaafari has done is to try to encourage that kind of orientation among the Sunnis and that should auger well for the future.

MARGARET WARNER: And very briefly, Professor Dawisha, the fact that Prime Minister Allawi is now out of it completely, none of his faction, even though they won a lot of votes, he’s going to go into opposition, do you think that’s good or bad?

ADEED DAWISHA: I think that’s excellent because I really do want to see an opposition in the national assembly. If we have a national unity government, you have a pliant national assembly; what I want to see is a group of people who actually will oppose, who will take the government to task, who will say that there is something wrong when there is something wrong.

MARGARET WARNER: Great. Thank you so much. Gentlemen, thank you all.