Tuesday, February 15, 2005

War News For Tuesday, February 15, 2005 Part One – Iraqi Politics

There are some who, uh, feel like that, you know, the conditions are such that they can attack us there. My answer is: bring 'em on. We got the force necessary to deal with the security situation." - George W. Bush, July 2, 2003

Bring ‘em on: US troops and gunmen in firefight around Baghdad’s Haifa street. Turkish businessman held hostage for two months freed after his family paid a substantial ransom. Iraqi deputy governor escaped death in suicide bomb attack in Khalis, no other casualties reported. Election officials report gunmen seized some ballot boxes in Mosul.

Bring ‘em on: One US soldier killed and three wounded in bomb attack outside Baquaba.

Bring ‘em on: Three ING troops killed in Baquaba roadside bombing. Two police officers killed, two wounded in attack in Mosul by gunmen that succeeded in freeing a prisoner who was being transported by the officers. Three injured in mortar attack on Baghdad police station. One woman and a two-year-old girl killed, seven wounded in mortar attack in Samarra. Two high ranking policemen assassinated by gunmen in Baghdad. Oil pipeline set on fire near Kirkuk. Kidnappers threatened to decapitate their Swedish hostage if ransom isn’t paid. Iraqi translator and his son were killed in Nassiriyah.

Bring ‘em on: Iraqi militant group claims it has kidnapped an Iraqi Christian translator who worked at a US military base.

Election Results

It’s clear that the main Shiite party, the UIA, has taken the largest number of seats in the new National Assembly. They did not take the two-thirds needed to choose a Prime Minister without a coalition but they may control more than 50% of the total seats. This could be quite an important point, as Juan Cole points out. A simple majority allows them to win votes on procedure and legislation in the Assembly without reference to their coalition partners.

Don’t be confused by different reports that state that the UIA failed to win a majority. Close reading shows that the writers are not making a distinction between the two-thirds majority needed to form a government and the simple ‘greater than 50%’ majority needed to control the Assembly.

The second article below states that the UIA won 47.6 percent of the vote. I do not know if it follows that they have fewer than half the seats in the Assembly. There may be a vagary in the Iraqi electoral system that allows a party to take slightly less than half the vote and still have more than half the seats. If anyone has any more specific information, please share it.

Majority: Lebanese Broadcasting Co.'s satellite television news is reporting that the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA), comprising Shiite religious parties, has won an absolute majority (141 seats) after adjustments were made in accordance with electoral procedure. Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, the list leader, expressed his pleasure at this 51 percent outcome for his coalition. The UIA still needs a 2/3s majority, and therefore a coalition partner or partners, to form a government (which involves electing a president and two vice-presidents, who will appoint a prime minister). But it can now win votes on procedure and legislation without needing any other partner.

Or no majority: A Shiite Muslim coalition failed to win a majority in Iraq's National Assembly election, meaning the nation may be run by a coalition administration formed around a secular figure such as interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi.

The United Iraqi Alliance, backed by Iranian-born Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, won 47.6 percent of the vote in the Jan. 30 election, the Independent Electoral Commission announced at a news conference broadcast from Baghdad today by networks including Qatar-based al-Jazeera. A two-thirds majority is required to form a government.

Negotiations: The top vote-getters in Iraq's national elections huddled Monday to bargain over posts in the next government, and Kurdish parties appeared to be in position to install the first president of their ethnic minority in Iraq's history.

The presidency is largely ceremonial but of great symbolic significance to the Kurds, a mostly Sunni Muslim minority that was oppressed and massacred during Saddam Hussein's rule.

The more powerful position of prime minister is likely to go to a candidate from the Shiite Muslim coalition that won 48 percent of the vote on Jan. 30 and may get more than half of the 275 seats in the National Assembly.

This news cycle has generated a lot of reports making variations on the theme that the Shiites are motivated to bring the Sunnis in to the governing process and that they don’t want civil strife. Hopefully this is true. Still, though, there are many political reasons why the UIA might want to present a non-confrontational face now and something else entirely later.

The question that I haven’t seen addressed is this: If the UIA can form a coalition to put their man in the PM seat, and they also are able to control all legislation and procedural votes in the Assembly, does this create a situation where the only way that minor parties can influence legislation is through the threat of bringing down the government? And what would that do to the chances for long term stability?

Enforcing conditions is harder than setting them: The main factor ensuring a relatively cautious Shiite majority is the complicated mechanism controlling the formation of the government. Under the rules, the prime minister will be selected by a president and two deputies, who must be approved by a two-thirds vote of the assembly. Practically speaking, that means the prime minister will have to be approved by a two-thirds vote. The Shiite alliance has nowhere near that many seats.

Iraqi leaders who are not part of the Shiite alliance say that in exchange for their support for a Shiite prime minister, they could set strict conditions on several key issues, like the role of religion in the constitution and the power of regional governments.

A US official speaks: "There is a lot of reason to believe that the Shias, while they want to govern, don't want a war [and] don't want the country to split," a senior U.S. Embassy official in Baghdad said last week. "There is an awful lot being talked about among Shia politicians about the need to reach out to Sunnis…. How do they include them? How do they reassure them? "All this goes back to this giant fundamental question: Can Iraqis find a basis on which to live with each other? And that question is just starting to be entered into, and it's one that ultimately they have to answer," he added. If they succeed, he said, "the whole thing can come out in a somewhat civilized and beneficial fashion. And if they can't, it's going to be a disaster and there won't be anything we can do about it."

Here are some pieces on a few of the personalities that may be seen in the new government.

Adel Abdul Mahdi: Mahdi's party, born and nurtured in Iran, guided by a Shiite cleric and backed by a feared militia, unnerves some secular and Sunni Iraqis who say they fear an Iranian-style government run by Islamic code.

Mahdi is the smooth, urbane face of the party, and he appears not in clerical robes, but in a Western suit. His role, in part, is to soothe skeptics in Iraq and worriers in the West. As members of his religious party whipped their backs with ropes and chains and wept Sunday night as a part of a Shiite rite, Mahdi was coolly discussing the election results on CNN.

His line is a message of moderation. He dismisses talk of Shiite domination and describes his vision of Iraq's government as one that embraces everyone.

"Building an institutionalized Iraq, a good democracy, freedom, respecting all of us, respecting Islam and other religions, respecting the secular parties -- this is what we can do to achieve a balance," said Mahdi, who speaks English and French fluently. "Everyone will find his place."

Real deal or figureheads – only Sistani knows: A French-educated finance minister and a former London physician emerged Monday as the top candidates to be Iraq's next prime minister, as leaders of the clergy-backed Shiite Muslim alliance launched consultations after failing to get a two-thirds majority in the vote for Iraq's new Parliament.

The prominence of urbane, moderate, Western-oriented figures appears designed to counter concern in Washington that Iran's influence will grow in Iraq after a Shiite-dominated government takes power – even though the ultimate decision may rest with a reclusive elderly cleric.

The Guardian, a paper that sits fairly high in my estimation as a reliable source, reports that Sunnis are rethinking their estrangement from the political process. This would be very good news if true.

This could be true: Iraq's Arab Sunnis will do a U-turn and join the political process despite their lack of representation in the newly elected national assembly, Sunni leaders said yesterday.

Many Sunnis protested that the election was flawed and unfair, but in the wake of Sunday's results, which confirmed the marginalisation of what was Iraq's ruling class, their political parties want to lobby for a share of power.

"Our view is that this election was a step towards democracy and ending the occupation," said Ayad al-Samaray, the assistant general secretary of the Iraqi Islamic party. He said unnamed Sunni leaders blundered in depicting the election as a deepening of the occupation.

But this is definitely true: Only two percent of eligible Iraqis in the Sunni Arab-dominated Anbar province voted in Iraq's elections, and only 29 percent in the mainly Sunni Salahadin province, the final tally released on Sunday showed. The low turnout in Sunni provinces showed that many Sunni Arabs boycotted the election or stayed away out of fear, potentially worsening sectarian tension in Iraq.

The sticky bit is that a stable, unitary Iraq is not necessarily going to be the beacon for democracy and great friend of the USA that the Busheviks thought. Based on their history of duplicitous behavior, it is very difficult to believe that the administration would consider just picking up their armies and going home even if a democratically elected Iraqi government asked them to. Especially in light of this article:

Typical Bush planning: When the Bush administration decided to invade Iraq two years ago, it envisioned a quick handover to handpicked allies in a secular government that would be the antithesis of Iran's theocracy -- potentially even a foil to Tehran's regional ambitions.

But, in one of the greatest ironies of the U.S. intervention, Iraqis instead went to the polls and elected a government with a strong religious base -- and very close ties to the Islamic republic next door. It is the last thing the administration expected from its costly Iraq policy -- $300 billion and counting, U.S. and regional analysts say.

Yet the top two winning parties -- which together won more than 70 percent of the vote and are expected to name Iraq's new prime minister and president -- are Iran's closest allies in Iraq.

Thousands of members of the United Iraqi Alliance, a Shiite-dominated slate that won almost half of the 8.5 million votes and will name the prime minister, spent decades in exile in Iran. Most of the militia members in its largest faction were trained in Shiite-dominated Iran.

And the winning Kurdish alliance, whose co-leader Jalal Talabani is the top nominee for president, has roots in a province abutting Iran, which long served as its economic and political lifeline.

Some would have us believe that this is just a peachy outcome.

Good enough: As the victorious parties in Iraq's election conducted behind-the-scenes negotiations over key posts in the new government, the Bush administration signaled Monday that it plans to lower its profile in Iraq in the coming months.

"That's what the elections were about," said one senior U.S. official who closely follows political developments in Iraq. "No matter what the outcome ... we were going to begin the process of getting out of Iraq."

U.S. officials and regional specialists said the administration's views had evolved significantly since the months after the March 2003 invasion. At that point, many key U.S. figures were reluctant to embrace any Iraqi government that was dominated by Shiites with deep ties to Iran.

"I think there has been a lot of rethinking in the administration that a pro-Iranian outcome is no longer to be feared, but is good enough," said Kenneth Katzman, a senior analyst of Persian Gulf affairs for the Congressional Research Service.


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