Ibrahim al-Jaafari Nominated for Prime Minister by Shiite Muslims
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JIM LEHRER: More on Iraq’s new leader now, from Juan Cole, professor of Middle East history at the University of Michigan; and Laith Kubba, senior program officer for the Middle East at the National Endowment for Democracy. Born in Iraq, he’s now an American citizen.
JIM LEHRER: Mr. Kubba, what do you believe is the most important thing we should know about Mr. Al-Jaafari?
LAITH KUBBA: He’s a man of principles. He really has integrity; his past is clean. The most important thing, he managed to navigate his leadership in the Dawa Party through very difficult times in Iran throughout the 80s, and throughout the 90s.
I think his leadership skills have been tested and his ability to deal with the Iranians in the 80s, and of course now to deal with the American influence in Iraq. Throughout all these difficult times, I think he showed integrity and kept while very much being anchored in his own beliefs, but at the same time showed pragmatism and being able to adjust to conditions.
JIM LEHRER: Professor Cole, do you agree, here’s a man who’s pragmatic but also a man of integrity?
JUAN COLE: He’s a man of principle; he’s been devoted to the Dawa Party, and its own commitments to an Islamic state in Iraq since his youth. He has been willing to show pragmatism, he has cooperated with the United States; the London branch of the Dawa that he led was involved in the invasion plans in 2003.
And he served on the interim governing council under the Americans. So he is someone who is able to navigate between his commitments and the realities of the world, which is how he got where he is.
JIM LEHRER: How would you describe his personal politics?
JUAN COLE: Jaafari has a rhetoric of inclusion. He wants to reach out, he says, to the Sunni Arabs who have been excluded by this recent election, to Moqtada Sadr and his more hard line theocratic group. He is willing to work with the Americans. So he has a kind of moderation and a kind of inclusiveness in his rhetoric.
In principle, that’s there, but in practice we have yet to see exactly how he will move forward, whether he will mend fences with the Baath Party, which after all was the party of most of the Sunni Arabs and which visited great destruction on the Dawa Party members, including putting many of them in mass graves.
JIM LEHRER: Mr. Kubba, how would you judge him as a politician? What do you think we can expect based on his, the way he’s handled his politics up till now?
LAITH KUBBA: I think he keeps his options open, and his cards very much close to his chest. But ultimately he does put the interest of the nation above even the interest of the party. As I said, he is a man of core beliefs, and he –.
JIM LEHRER: What are his core beliefs?
LAITH KUBBA: He genuinely believe in the core values of Islam, and that is ultimately the people of Iraq are Muslims, that you cannot impose religion on any people or nation, although he advocates Islam, and he’s a firm believer in an Islamic world outlook, but he knows well and his upbringing and that of the Dawa Party is that you cannot impose that on people, you have to convince them. So while he’s going to be persistent as being himself a practicing Muslim and somebody who believes in Islamic values, I think he can demonstrate that he can be inclusive and be an Iraqi nationalist so, to speak.
JIM LEHRER: Some Americans shy away when they hear the possibility of there being an Islamic state in Iraq now. How would al-Jaafari translate those two words, Islamic state, do you believe?
LAITH KUBBA: I really believe it’s media hype, and of course a lot people jump when they hear Islamic state, they have maybe Taliban in mind, in Afghanistan or the regime in Iran. But knowing Iraq and the diversity within Iraq, Jaafari knows well that he cannot impose his own version, let alone a Shia version amongst the Shias let alone version on the whole of Iraqis. So the prospect of having a ready made shariah law to be imposed on Iraq is just an imaginary one.
JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with that, Professor Cole?
JUAN COLE: Well, I think there’s a difference between what Jaafari wants and what he can achieve. What he wants is Islamic law, as much of Islamic law as he can get implemented in Iraq. He was already part of an attempt on the interim governing council last year to impose Islamic law in personal status matters and in marriage, divorce, inheritance, alimony.
And some of those laws would be setbacks for middle class Iraqi women, for educated women, and they were the ones who fought back this attempt. So I expect him to continue to press for Islamic law, and maybe even to extend it to things like commercial law and so forth. It may be that he is unable to pursue that course because it’s opposed by the Kurds, with whom he will have to form a governing coalition. But that is his goal.
JIM LEHRER: Now, Professor Cole, it is correct to say that he’s very close, is it not to the leading Shia cleric, Ayatollah al-Sistani, right? Professor Cole?
JUAN COLE: Oh, yes, he is — Jaafari is extremely close to Sistani and has had extensive consultations with him. And indeed when Jaafari served on the interim governing council, some of the policies that he adopted clearly were those of Sistani.
So we can expect him to, as prime minister, to continue to go to Najaf to consult with Sistani on policy, and Sistani of course will be important in keeping party discipline, because the United Iraqi Alliance that Jaafari now will lead is a disparate group and it is Sistani’s moral authority so far that is holding it together.
JIM LEHRER: Mr. Kubba, do you agree, do you believe we should see al-Jaafari as a Sistani man or as Sistani’s man?
LAITH KUBBA: I think he’ll ultimately –.
JIM LEHRER: To use American political –
LAITH KUBBA: I don’t think he’s anybody’s man. As I said, I think he’s educated, he is well read; he studied religion himself in a seminary in the same way as the clergy do. So in a way he does see himself as a learned person. And as a learned person, he knows ultimately if Sistani says no on something, he’ll abide by it.
But he also knows that that position is not a religious one, it’s a political position; it’s a position that people elected him to do a job. And I am sure if he sees a contradiction between his beliefs and doing that job, he’ll resign rather than abuse the position.
JIM LEHRER: What about his attitude toward the United States? What can you help us on that to understand?
LAITH KUBBA: Well, on the U.S. — coming from a solid Islamic religious background, one would not expect him to see eye to eye with the U.S. on regional issues or foreign policy issues. But there is a lot, I think he does see eye to eye at least on Iraq, when it comes to security of bringing democracy to Iraq, helping the country rebuild itself.
He’s a pragmatist and he will see that Iraq’s interests are served, through working with the U.S. on these issues. I don’t think he is dogmatically driven to be anti-U.S., but at the same time, I don’t think one would expect him simply to be like other politicians, lining up just to appease or please the U.S..
JIM LEHRER: Professor Cole, what about the presence of the U.S. Military and the coalition in Iraq? What is his attitude likely to be about that? Are we going to hear calls for the occupation to end or what?
JUAN COLE: No, Jaafari has come out and said that it would be a mistake to establish a strict timetable for U.S. withdrawal from Iraq or for the U.S. to withdraw in a precipitated fashion. He’s a pragmatist on this issue; on the other hand, there are clouds on the horizon with regard to his relationship with the United States. He opposed the campaign in Fallujah; he wasn’t happy about the campaigns in Najaf.
He’s not a person who’s in favor of solving these problems militarily. He has got warm relations with Tehran, I do not believe he would approve of any U.S. aggressive action towards Iran, and he’s likely to have good relations with the Shiites of southern Lebanon, including both the Amal and Hezbollah Parties. So on all of those issues he may well come into conflict with U.S. policy.
JIM LEHRER: So it would be a mistake, Professor Cole, for the United States to assume they’ve got somebody there who is in our camp or in their camp? It’s going to be an issue by issue situation?
JUAN COLE: It’s an issue by issue situation, but it should be remembered that Jaafari has been elected. His party has 51 percent of the seats in parliament, was put there by an open election, and he has all of the legitimacy and authority that drives for that. He can claim to speak for a majority of the Iraqi people.
So that, the United States just as it cannot expect the prime minister of a European country or the president of a European country that’s an ally of the United States necessarily to agree with it on all issue; likewise, it can expect Jaafari to have an independent policy as well.
JIM LEHRER: So a new world, Mr. Kubba, for the United States and Iraq is about to happen?
LAITH KUBBA: I think indeed it is a new world for Iraq; in the first place this is the first time Iraqis really are deciding their destiny. And I think we mustn’t forget it’s only ten months term for this government, not much can happen, but certainly a foundation for the future.
JIM LEHRER: Because there are new elections coming in ten months, this is an interim government.
LAITH KUBBA: Interim, but it’s going to set the foundation.
JIM LEHRER: All right, gentlemen, thank you both very much.