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British, U.S. Officials Urge Iraqis to Break Political Stalemate

April 3, 2006 at 12:00 AM EDT
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GWEN IFILL: During their visit to Iraq, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her British counterpart, Jack Straw, prodded Iraqi leaders to get on with the critical business of forming a new government. The first step, she said today, is for Iraqis to settle on a prime minister.

CONDOLEEZZA RICE, U.S. Secretary of State: It is not my responsibility or the responsibility of Secretary Straw to determine who is going to be the prime minister of Iraq; that can only be determined by Iraqis. We know that the largest voting bloc out of the democratic process will nominate that person. That is also only fair in a process like this.

But the only question that we have had is how this gets done now; how you complete the process of getting a government; how you complete the process and, in order to do that, you have to have a prime minister named. And that must be somebody who can unify the various blocs, the various groups of voters, who also went to the polls and now represent of interests of their voters.

GWEN IFILL: Rice did not mention him by name, but foreign diplomats and increasingly critical members of interim Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari’s own Shiite alliance have been calling for him to step aside. British Foreign Minister Straw, who traveled with Rice to Iraq, said political instability is feeding violence.

JACK STRAW, British Foreign Minister: I think there’s a sense by the Iraqi politicians that we met that they recognize the urgency of the matter. And I think they also recognize something I certainly recognized, and Secretary Rice does, that, if this vacuum continues, then the opportunity for the terrorists and the insurgents, who are trying to stop democracy, stop the Iraqi people having their own government, will bluntly expand.

GWEN IFILL: While in Baghdad, Rice and Straw met with Jaafari and President Jalal Talabani, but also with other religious and ethnic leaders whose support for Jaafari has begun to fracture.

Jaafari has criticized what he has described as America’s interference in Iraq’s political process. But Secretary Rice said the United States has every right to urge Iraqis to form a new government.

CONDOLEEZZA RICE: The Iraqi people deserve one and need one because there is a vacuum, and vacuums are not good in politics. We are talking with them as allies, as countries, representatives of countries that have shed blood and are paying a lot of the finance here to build a stable Iraq.

GWEN IFILL: The dispute over Jaafari’s future has escalated attentions between feuding Shiite militias, one lead by cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who supports Jaafari, and another by Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, who heads the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq. Efforts to form a new government have been up in the air since the December elections.

So, is outside pressure doing anything to change the political equation in Iraq? For that, we turn to two people who have been watching this situation closely.

Trudy Rubin, who is a foreign affairs columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer, she’s traveled to Iraq frequently. And Babak Rahimi, an assistant professor of Islamic studies at the University of California in San Diego. He’s also a senior fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace.

Trudy Rubin, how significant was whatever this was with Rice and Straw in Iraq today, whether you call it intervention, interference or just involvement?

TRUDY RUBIN, Philadelphia Inquirer: Well, I think the visit took place because everyone in the U.S. and in Britain in the leadership is getting so worried about the failure to form a government.

But in the end, I don’t think it’s going to be the U.S. intervention that decides whether that government is formed because, in reality, Iraqi politics have taken on a life of their own. And the formation of a government is really going to be decided by whether the Shiites, who are at deep odds over the choice of a prime ministerial candidate, can decide among themselves and then, once that decision is made, whether Shiites, Kurds and Sunnis can form a government of national unity.

Rice could try to expedite the process, but there’s deep internal rifts between the Shiite groupings that will really decide whether it happens.

GWEN IFILL: Professor Rahimi, do you think it’s necessary to have Secretary Rice, as Trudy Rubin put it, expedite the process?

BABAK RAHIMI, University of California, San Diego: Not at all. I think it’s giving the impression, to especially the Shia Iraqis and just generally Iraqis at large, that really the Americans are the ones that are calling the shots.

And I think it’s highly problematic for an Iraqi state to legitimize itself the way it’s forming right now, to legitimize itself, while at the same time hearing Dr. Rice making comments like this.

I think what the U.S. should do at this stage is to keep a distance from what’s going on with the domestic and, really, the Shia conflict within the Shia party, to keep a distance. And even if it wants to do anything, even if it wants to advise or push any agenda, it should do it discreetly, because definitely it’s giving the wrong impression to the Iraqi people.

GWEN IFILL: Professor, are you saying there’s just the wrong impression or is there a potential for backlash?

BABAK RAHIMI: Oh, definitely a potential for backlash. I was actually — I guess you could say I was being very polite, but definitely there is potential for backlash.

I was in Iraq last summer and while the constitution was being ratified before the August 15th deadline. And definitely among the Iraqi Shias in the south that I talked to, definitely there was an impression that the U.S. is very much pushing this in their own direction, the Americans are pushing this towards their own direction.

And they just simply were seeing this whole government formation as an American process. And I think that’s something the U.S. Should avoid at this stage.

GWEN IFILL: Trudy Rubin, let’s talk a little bit about whatever the U.S. role ought to be, but also about why, obviously, Secretary Rice and Foreign Minister Straw felt the need to be there today. Obviously, they don’t think that things are working out on their own, that the Shiite majority in particular has figured out what to do about this prime minister’s job.

TRUDY RUBIN: No, in reality, the failure to pick a prime minister is not because the U.S. is meddling; it’s because Iraqi politics is so deeply divided. The way the constitutional process works, the largest bloc, which is a Shiite bloc made up of several Shiite parties, is supposed to nominate the prime minister. They voted amongst themselves and picked Jaafari by just one vote.

There are deep divisions. The largest Shiite party — its acronym is SCIRI — is tremendously against Jaafari. There is an historic rivalry between their families.

The Kurds and the Sunnis are also — their large blocs are also against Jaafari. There is the feeling that he has been ineffective, that he doesn’t consult, and he is backed by the radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who turns off the seculars and worries many of the other parties.

So there are deep divisions within the Iraqi body politic, and the complicated constitutional logistics of getting a prime minister in place are also making the choice more difficult.

GWEN IFILL: But until recently, Trudy, it seemed like the United States supported Jaafari, as well as Muqtada al-Sadr, as you pointed out. And he had his supporters, but everyone seems to be bailing out now. What’s changed?

TRUDY RUBIN: The U.S. was never for Jaafari backed by Sadr, but they sort of stood back, although it was well-known that the United States would have favored the alternative candidate that was put up by SCIRI, Vice President Adel Abdul Mahdi. But they left the pick up to the Shiites.

The problem is, is that the choice was so narrow and everyone actually thought that it was going to go to Adel Abdul Mahdi. There was a lot of shock when it went the other way, and there were a lot of accusations that Muqtada al-Sadr — the radical cleric has a militia and that his militia men had threatened some of the voting delegates in the Shiite bloc.

And so there is a lot of wary now. And, really, the vast majority of those elected would like Jaafari to step down, but Jaafari is very firmly insisting on staying. And…

GWEN IFILL: Because?

TRUDY RUBIN: Because he thinks — he has always thought of — I’ve interviewed him several times — that he is chosen both, perhaps, spiritually and by the Iraqi body politic to lead. And he just is not going to give way.

And he also says that the process called for him to be chosen by the largest bloc, and he was. The problem is that the other elected groupings, Kurd and Sunni, and really just about half of the Shiites in their bloc determinedly and seriously do not want this man. They are deeply opposed to him, and so you have a stalemate.

GWEN IFILL: Professor Rahimi, as we look at this stalemate, what is at stake right now?

BABAK RAHIMI: The stake is a weakening of the Iraqi state and, unfortunately, the eventual possibility of the failure of the Iraqi state, the last thing Iraq right now needs.

And unfortunately, exactly what the lady was talking about, the inner conflict within the Shia parties, and especially the SCIRI faction on one side and, of course, the Muqtada al-Sadr side on another side is definitely creating a lot of problems.

We saw what happened August 26th last year where the actual militias were fighting against each other for power, and that happened in the realm of the military sphere. This is right now — what we are seeing is happening actually in the political sphere, and it’s simply not good for Iraq.

GWEN IFILL: So which, Professor, is the chicken and which is the egg here? Is the political stalemate driving the sectarian violence or is it the violence that’s creating the situation that allows a stalemate?

BABAK RAHIMI: Well, it’s ultimately — it’s on different levels. One could say that there’s an intra-sectarian problem here among the Shias, where it’s definitely fueling the fire and, unfortunately, something that existed even prior to the toppling of the Saddam Hussein regime. It was already there.

And, unfortunately, with the U.S. invasion, it very much kind of unwrapped itself, unleashed itself. Now we are seeing the problems manifest in the Iraqi politics right now.

So, definitely, that’s what I will see, the intra-sectarian conflict and also the sectarian conflict, which you’re already seeing happening for the last few months or so.

GWEN IFILL: Trudy Rubin, we have heard the president and we’ve heard the secretary of state talk again and again about the need for a unity government in Iraq. As Professor Rahimi just pointed out, sometimes there is intra-sectarian disagreement, which would seem to act against a unity government, even among Shia, even if the Shia were the only people who had to be taken into account here.

What is the possibility now that this kind of disagreement, this stalemate, is derailing the opportunity to form a unity government?

TRUDY RUBIN: It absolutely is doing so. If there could be a prime ministerial candidate that could have the agreement of most people in parliament, I think we’ve reached the point where you would have a national unity government.

The key now is whether the Shiites are willing to split their bloc. The Shiites had hoped that democracy would give them power, because they’re the majority. And they’re leading religious figure, Ayatollah Sistani, has wanted their bloc to stick together.

What we will see in the next few days is whether the leader of the largest party in that bloc, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, the head of SCIRI, will split the bloc, because his party does not want Jaafari as the prime ministerial candidate.

And if he splits the bloc, there would be enough votes, along with Kurds and Sunnis, to perhaps nominate another candidate in the assembly or, through a complicated process, vote down the Jaafari choice. And we will see whether Ayatollah Sistani would tolerate a split within the Shiite bloc; that will be played out in the next few days.

GWEN IFILL: Professor Rahimi, if there is that kind of split in Shiite bloc, who stands to benefit and who stands to lose?

BABAK RAHIMI: Well, actually, I would think that Muqtada al-Sadr will be the ultimate winner. He will be the ultimate winner, because he would show, at least to his constituency, to his base, that those people that did not support us, those people, that were, I guess you could say, pro-American, they’re the ones that kind of distance themselves from us.

And look at us. We are the only ones — we are the only group that is anti-occupation group, and we have to split away. And I think, ultimately, what Muqtada al-Sadr could do is create its own party and, not only just a party, but also, given the fact that he has so much power within the southern Iraq, he could definitely create a lot of problems and havoc because of that split. And, remember, there is still a lot of — yes, I’m sorry?

GWEN IFILL: I was just going to ask you finally a question, both to you and to Trudy Rubin, which is: Should the United States or anybody watching this situation be as worried as Secretary Rice and Foreign Minister Straw appear to be, or is this just the way democracy unfolds in a new — for the first time in this area?

TRUDY RUBIN: I think they should be very worried, because the differences within the Shiite bloc are very deep and historic. And this is going to be hard to overcome in a peaceful way.

It may be, but certainly there is reason to worry because, the longer the vacuum goes on and the longer there’s no stable government, the harder it is going to be even to address the issues of potential civil war and the insurgency, and the harder for American troops to draw down.

GWEN IFILL: Professor Rahimi, do you agree with that?

BABAK RAHIMI: Absolutely. Also, the more dangerous thing is not necessarily sectarian fights or conflict between the Sunnis and the Shias, but actually fight within the Shia community in the south.

I think the most important figure in this whole story will be Ayatollah Sistani. And we just have to see what he will say and what sort of politics he will play in the months to come.

GWEN IFILL: Babak Rahimi and Trudy Rubin, thank you both very much.

BABAK RAHIMI: Thank you.