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Reporter in Baghdad Discusses Recent Developments, Violence

February 13, 2006 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JEFFREY BROWN: Robert, let’s start with political developments. The interim prime minister, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, has been picked by the main Shiite alliance to become the permanent prime minister. Remind us who he is and tell us what you’ve learned about why he was selected.

ROBERT WORTH: Jaafari has been prime minister for the past year. He’s a doctor. He’s someone who fled Iran, like many Iraqis — like many Shiites in 1980. He lived abroad. He lived for some years in Iran and forged some pretty close ties with the leaders there, like many members of the Shiite alliance.

When he came back last year he was one of a number of leaders who contended to be prime minister. He became the prime minister. He’s criticized by many here for being a little bit weak, not strong-willed enough.

In any case for the past year there’s been a lot of violence in Iraq. Oil exports are down. Oil production is down. And so he’s borne the brunt of a lot of that criticism. So he’s not exactly a popular man.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, given that, what was the reaction today by other Iraqi officials and Americans there to his being selected?

ROBERT WORTH: So far as I know, the Americans have not publicly reacted. We think they’re disappointed because the man expected to become prime minister was Adel Abdul Mahdi; he is a man who is generally believed to be more popular with Americans. He’s more secular. He’s an economist. He has a reputation for being decisive and a consensus builder.

And we believe that the Shiite leaders, the leaders of the alliance, had more or less selected him to become the next prime minister in part because of the criticisms of Jaafari. But Jaafari refused to step down. They had hoped to find a new leader by consensus. That wasn’t working. And Jaafari had a lot of support. He ended up winning by one vote.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Robert, how did other political parties there react to the selection of Mr. Jaafari?

ROBERT WORTH: Some of them are clearly disappointed. Jaafari has been especially unpopular with Sunnis because Sunnis have accused Jaafari’s government of backing death squads that have killed a lot of Sunnis in parts of Baghdad and elsewhere in the country.

He’s — I think it’s fair to say –hated by many Sunnis. So they reacted badly. Kurds also, I think it’s fair so say, generally were hoping that Adel Abdul Mahdi would become the next prime minister. They have a better relationship with him. Kurds have also been very critical of Jaafari, in particular, because they say he’s governed in an autocratic way. Even though the Kurds were the main partner of the Shiites, the Kurds say that Jaafari did not bring them in enough on decisions.

And they also accuse Jaafari of being slow to implement efforts by Kurds to bring Kurds back to Kirkuk. Kirkuk is a crucial city up in the North. There’s oil there. And the Kurds want to bring Kurdish people who are kicked out under Saddam back to Kirkuk. They need Shiite participation to keep doing that. And the Kurds say the Shiites have been delaying on that.

JEFFREY BROWN: I understand that Moqtada al-Sadr played a role in coming through with some swing votes that were quite important here. How is that being interpreted?

ROBERT WORTH: Yeah, he did indeed. In fact, Sadr has 30 seats in the new parliament. He now has 32, a small separate Shiite Party of followers of Sadr has joined the main Shiite alliance. He’s the single largest bloc.

Those people, we’re told, all voted for Jaafari. Its partly because Sadr has a longstanding rivalry with SCIRI which is the party that Adel Abdul Mahdi belongs to. That certainly helped Jaafari. But it does suggest that Sadr, who fought two bloody uprisings against Americans and the interim government in 2004, has a lot of political influence now. And people are concerned, I think. A lot of Iraqis are concerned about that.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, Robert, where did this leave with — things in terms of negotiations over a new government with Kurds — with secular Shiites, with Sunnis? What happens now?

ROBERT WORTH: Well, the parliament is going to meet in the next two weeks. And on the day they meet they have to pick a speaker. After that, they have another two weeks to pick a president. And then the cabinet will be formed. Of course, some of the negotiations have already begun. If all the deadlines are met, we’ll have a government within two months.

However, last year they did not keep to their deadlines and it seems quite possible now that they won’t do it this year either. The negotiations are bound to be really, really difficult. There are more parties this year than there were last year.

Last year you had a government really ruled by two blocs, the Shiites and the Kurds. The Sunnis had mostly boycotted the vote this year you have a very strong Sunni presence in the government and there’s some really strong disagreements.

We also have an upcoming debate on reforming the constitution. The Sunnis are violently opposed to one aspect of the constitution that allows for the creation of semi-autonomous regions within Iraq. The Shiites are very much for it. And that’s going to be a very tough debate. And it may become part even of the formation of the government. As people negotiate to form over ministerial posts the future issues are going to become part of those negotiations.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now also today, Saddam Hussein made another appearance in court against his will today. Tell us about that. And I’m also curious how is that — is there any way for you to gauge how is the trial playing over there? Are people paying rapt attention? Is it being talked and written about?

ROBERT WORTH: Well, Saddam had been essentially thrown out of the trial by the judge about two weeks ago, as had his half brother, and ultimately there were a couple of sessions of the trial or at least one session of the trial with no defendants at all. Saddam and — the defense lawyers for Saddam and the other main defendants are also out.

Today Saddam and other the other defendants were all back in court. And they were back at some of the same antics we’ve seen in the past. Saddam marched in and yelled at the judge for forcing him to come back — Down with Bush; up with the Arab nation — lots of this kind of stuff.

His half brother, Barzan, also some bizarre scenes again; Barzan was thrown physically out of the court last time he was there. This time he yelled at the judge. At one point he sat down on the floor with his back to the judge and appeared to be falling asleep.

We did have some interesting developments. A couple of government witnesses for the first time in court; however, their testimony didn’t add much.

As far as how it’s playing, this is a case that was watched almost universally, we think, at first. Obviously you can’t do surveys in Iraq. But it certainly had tremendous, tremendous attention at first when it started in October. We have a sense that there’s a lot less interest now.

Time and again Saddam and his fellow defendants have created kind of a circus. And many people view the trial that way now. Of course, if there’s significant progress being made, if we have important former regime members testifying, that’s obviously going to bring back attention.

JEFFREY BROWN: And also today there was yet more violence including a bomb outside a bank in Baghdad. Any indication of why that would have been a target and who was behind it?

ROBERT WORTH: Well, no indication of who was behind it. It was in a mostly Shiite area. And insurgents here have often struck at Shiite civilians. So that’s as far as we know the likely motive. And at least five people were killed. It may have been as many as ten. It was one of a number of attacks today. I think there were at least 20 people killed: Some in the North, some in the center, some in the South.

It’s been relatively calm since the elections, but we’ve seen an upsurge in violence in the past week or so. Whether that’s connected to the start of the formation of the government is not clear.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Robert Worth of the New York Times, thank you again.

ROBERT WORTH: Thank you.