AMMAN - The Iraqi parliament that was elected some 10 weeks ago has finally
picked the three-men presidium of the Republic, making Jalal Talabani the first
Kurdish president of Iraq. The appointments follow a breakthrough last week
when the National Assembly at last agreed on a Sunni Arab speaker.
The presidency has two weeks to appoint a prime minister and a team of ministers,
but the announcement may come as early as this week. The main political grouping,
the Shia United Iraqi Alliance, has already agreed to nominate one of its members,
Ibrahim Jaafari, a member of Iraq's Islamist Da'wa Party, to head the government.
The slow pace and the difficulty in filling the appointments until now have
laid bare the problems Iraq is facing in establishing its first democratic government.
Predictably, the balance of power between Iraq's three main sectarian groups
Shias, Kurds, and Sunnis has proven to be the biggest stumbling
Getting suitable Sunni politicians to fill some high-profile but essentially
powerless jobs has been a particularly wrenching part of the process.
The drawn-out process and the open bickering between factions is said by some
Iraqis to have further encouraged the Sunni-led insurgency. Sunnis barely participated
in the elections, and they feel sidelined by the new political order imposed
by the Americans and their allies after the invasion of Iraq two years ago.
The government now being installed is taking over from the appointed interim
government of Prime Minister Iyad Allawi. The new government and the National
Assembly are charged with drafting a new constitution that should be completed
by August. New elections, under the new constitution, should then take place
The make-up of the presidium was predictable from the start. Talabani became
the new president in an acknowledgment that Kurds are now the second-most numerous
group in the country and in parliament, where they hold the balance of power.
The appointment may also help stem the most extreme Kurdish separatist urges.
It is a historic occasion; the country has never before had a Kurdish president.
Talabani has one Sunni deputy, outgoing interim president Ghazi al-Yawar, and
one Shia vice-president, current finance minister Adel Abdul Mahdi. Mahdi belongs
to the main Shia political grouping, the United Shia list that holds more than
half of the 275 seats in parliament.
The appointment of the presidium required a two-thirds majority in parliament,
placing the Kurds with their combined 75 seats in the position of kingmakers.
Kurds make up 20 percent of the country's 26 million people; Shias are 60 percent;
and the Sunni Arabs roughly 15 to 18 percent. Christian and other minorities
make up the rest.
The hardest bargaining over the last two months has been over relations among
the sectarian groups. This included bargaining over territorial issues such
as the oil-rich northern city of Kirkuk, which Kurds want administered as a
part of an autonomous Kurdish area.
Control over the huge oil reserves has also been hard fought, and it is still
not clear whether Kurds or Shias will head the oil ministry.
Another hotly debated issue has been the system of government: whether Iraq
should be a federation, and how far devolution of powers should go. The Kurds
have practically run their northern mountain fiefdom as an independent state
since the 1991 Gulf War, and not much changed after the overthrow of Saddam
Kurdish leaders have said they will not dissolve their peshmerga militia
that fought Saddam Hussein for more than 30 years, and resisted other Iraqi
governments before him. Talabani is the leader of one of the two main peshmerga
groups and its political arm, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK).
His longtime rival, Massoud Barzani of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP),
is now expected to head Kurdistan's autonomous regional parliament.
Kurds and Shias suffered most under the oppressive Ba'ath regime of Saddam
Hussein, who relied more on his own Sunni Arab part of the population. Kurds
and Shias are united in their resolve to resist any domination by the Sunnis
again, but there are also huge differences between them.
The Shia parties are mostly religious, and want a strong Islamic component
in the government. Several Shia leaders have ties with the clerics who run neighboring
Iran, where many found refuge during the years of Saddam Hussein.
The Kurds are much more secular in outlook, at least where the government of
the country is concerned, and they advocate a stricter separation between church
The Sunnis, despite the many Islamic fundamentalists who seem to be involved
in the insurgency, are also wary of too much religious influence, particularly
if it is seen to be linked to Iran. The Ba'ath Party, which is still popular
among many Sunnis, was mainly secular, although Saddam Hussein tried to rope
in religious support in his last years.
Apart from all the political and sectarian issues that will have to be settled,
the new government's priority will be to battle the insurgency that shows no
sign of waning.
Sunni political and religious leaders who called for a boycott of the January
elections have recently shown signs they are willing to denounce the violence
and to call on their followers to join the political process.
Ahmed Abdul Ghafour al-Samarrai of the influential Association of Muslim Scholars
called on his followers in a sermon last Friday to join the security forces.
He did warn them not to assist foreign troops, but this is a big step forward
compared to the earlier calls for resistance and warnings again cooperating
with the new Iraqi authorities.
The Sunnis may feel they have made a mistake isolating themselves from the
political process, which now seems to forge ahead regardless, though slowly
There are two other elements that may help determine the success of the new
government. The reconstruction of the country has been almost as slow as the
political process until now. Both for the Iraqis to see the supposed benefits
of democracy and to help fight the insurgency, more progress will have to be
And finally, the government will be judged on its relationship with the Americans.
It may be premature to talk about the departure of all foreign troops, but the
new leaders will have to prove they are not a puppet regime.