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Shiites Walk Softly in New Landscape

Times Staff Writer

The lopsided victory by Iraq’s Shiite Muslim alliance gives it the biggest voice in shaping the nation’s new government and constitution. But at the moment of their triumph, Shiite leaders have decided to accentuate moderation and inclusiveness to win over their political rivals.

The need to defeat the insurgency that has claimed thousands of lives and almost paralyzed reconstruction, along with checks negotiated into the transitional law, will keep the Shiites from moves that would offend other groups, such as trying to impose Islamic law, politicians here say.

The Shiite alliance, tacitly backed by the nation’s top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, is likely to control a slim majority in the new 275-seat national assembly, whereas Sunni Muslim Arabs won perhaps seven spots. As a result, some people fear that Iraq’s Shiite clerics will be tempted to emulate Shiite mullahs in neighboring Iran and push for an Islamic republic.

But if one listens to what the Shiite slate has been saying, there has been a reassuring consistency: Its members are not bent on dominating the political scene, even though Shiites are a majority in Iraq and were long repressed under Saddam Hussein. Rather, they want to cooperate with Iraq’s minority groups, including Sunni Arabs, favored under Hussein, and ethnic Kurds, most of whom are also Sunni.

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Abdelaziz Hakim, leader of the slate, has pledged a “government of national unity.” Talks with minority groups have been going on in some detail, said Mowaffak Rubaie, the country’s national security advisor and a leading voice in the new alliance of Shiites.

Instead of trying to cobble together enough allies to form a strong parliamentary majority to ram through legislation, he said, the slate is seeking to create a government that would include all, or as many as possible, of the 12 electoral slates that won seats in the assembly -- plus some Sunni groups that did not participate.

And instead of grabbing all the best government ministries for itself, it is considering using a complex point system that would give weight to each of the main political, religious and ethnic groups.

For instance, if a government minister is a Shiite, his or her two deputies might be a Kurd and a Sunni, and their assistants might be Turkmen or Christian, he said.

Although drawing a line at appeasing former Baathists or extremists who have committed crimes against the Iraqi people, and promising an early drive to cleanse the Iraqi security forces of infiltrators, he said the new government would be “one of the most inclusive, and certainly the most representative government in the history of Iraq.”

U.S. officials, who are wary of excessive Iranian influence in Iraq and believe that broad participation in the new government is necessary to quell the insurgency and allow a reduction in American troops, are voicing confidence that the Shiites will approach their newfound power pragmatically.

“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.

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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.”

The gravest challenge for the newly elected officials is how to engage the Sunni Arab community, whose participation in the election process was anemic. Some Sunnis boycotted the vote, while others did not take part for fear they would be targeted by insurgents.

Sunnis make up one-fifth of the population of Iraq, and probably a greater share of its managerial class and intellectual elite because they were favored under the rule of Hussein. Embittered and feeling marginalized, it remains to be seen whether they will participate in the new government despite their fall from the political heights.

One concern is that Sunnis will decide to stay outside the system and continue to back the insurgency against the new Iraqi authorities, even though the latter now have an electoral mandate to shore up their claim to power.

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Shiite and Kurdish politicians have recognized that danger and are already asking Sunni Arabs to participate, as experts and advisors, in devising the constitution that is supposed to be written and ratified by mid-October.

The response has been heartening, said Dr. Rajaa Habib Khuzaai, a Shiite and newly elected national assembly member who attended one meeting between interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi and Sunni clerics when he asked for their help.

“I was in the room, and nobody said no,” she said.

Among secular Iraqis and Sunnis, the results have raised strong worries that Hakim’s slate could put together the simple majority of votes needed to pass most legislation. That would give it free rein to put a distinctively Shiite stamp on Iraq over a range of domestic and foreign policies.

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For instance, although the transitional law says that Islam will be a source of inspiration for legislation, the exact meaning of that has been left open to interpretation.

Will Sharia, or Islamic law, become the main reference for national policy on divorce, censorship, the role of women in society, broadcasting and public morality, as many Shiite clerics and their followers insist?

Will mullahs and ayatollahs, issuing edicts and opinions from their mosques and councils, become hidden powers shaping and exercising vetoes in the legislative process through representatives of Hakim’s slate?

Both seem possible, based on the outcome of the vote. But Hakim’s Shiite bloc is not a monolith; it contains moderates as well as religious conservatives. Some of its most prominent members, including two often mentioned as candidates for prime minister, are secular.

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Some international observers have dismissed the idea that Iraq will closely follow Iran’s theocratic model.

“Iraqis have shown a very strong degree of independence from Iran, including the Iranian variant of Shia Islam, despite, in many cases, being Shia, and in spite of having those alliances of convenience with Iran during the Saddam regime,” said one Western official in Baghdad who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Sunni Arabs and Kurds also are taking heart from a rule that says Iraq’s new constitution must be approved by 16 of the nation’s 18 provinces. That rule effectively gives giving Kurds and Sunnis veto power over the document, because either group is a majority in at least three provinces.

Another rule mandates that the president and two vice presidents selected by the new national assembly must be approved by a two-thirds vote. That will force the largest Shiite bloc to make alliances in order to elect those leaders.

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For secular Sunni Arabs, liberals, leftists, Christians and many Kurds, who for the most part take a more relaxed approach to religious issues, the fear of religious domination of national legislation is real, and one more reason to press for as much regional and provincial autonomy in the next constitution as they can obtain.

But those problems remain in the future. For now, many Iraqi politicians are just happy that they have made it this far.

“I am delighted and thrilled,” said Khuzaai, an obstetrician and women’s advocate savoring her first night Sunday as an elected representative on Allawi’s list. “I never dreamed to be in politics, and now I am in the middle of this historic situation.”

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Key players

The newly elected national assembly will select a president and two vice presidents, who in turn will name a prime minister. Here are six top contenders for some of the crucial government posts.

Jalal Talabani

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Secular Sunni Muslim Kurd

Age: 72

Talabani is founder and secretary- general of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, one of two main parties in the Kurdish national movement in Iraq. Trained as a lawyer, he is considered an urbane elder statesman and is a former rebel leader. Talabani was a member of the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council, created after the 2003 invasion of Iraq. He is a strong advocate of a federal system in which the three Kurdish provinces would be granted a large degree of autonomy, and is touted as a possible candidate for the largely ceremonial position of president.

Iyad Allawi

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Secular Shiite Muslim Arab

Age: 59

A former exile leader, Allawi heads the Iraqi National Accord, a group of former Baath Party members and military officers who in the 1990s worked with British and American intelligence services on plots to oust Saddam Hussein. He was a member of the governing council and since becoming interim prime minister last year has advocated tough policies against insurgents while building bridges to Sunnis and ex-Baathists who accept the principle of a democratic, pluralistic Iraq. Allawi became active in the Baathist movement as a medical student -- he is a neurologist -- but broke with it around 1971. He was badly wounded in an assassination attempt in 1978 believed to have been ordered by Hussein.

Ghazi Ajil Yawer

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Secular Sunni Muslim Arab

Age: 45

A tribal leader who believes in modernizing while respecting Arab traditions, Yawer is the highest-ranking Sunni Arab in the interim government. A member of the former governing council, he became interim president last year. He was critical of the U.S.-led occupation but has also denounced violence against American forces. As leader of one of the largest Arab tribes, the Shammar, which includes Shiite clans, he has strong ties to the Arab Gulf nations and Saudi Arabia, where he once lived. Trained as a civil engineer in the U.S., he went into exile with his family in the mid-1980s. Yawer returned to Iraq in 2003.

Ibrahim Jafari

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Shiite Muslim Arab

Age: Believed to be 57.

One of two vice presidents in the interim government, Jafari is the main spokesman for the Islamic Dawa Party, which was repressed by Hussein. Born in the city of Karbala and educated as a physician at Mosul University, he later went into exile and was based in London. He returned to Iraq in 2003 and became a member of the governing council. Gentlemanly and soft-spoken, he is known as a moderate and in opinion polls has among the highest approval ratings of any Iraqi politician.

Hussein Shahristani

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Secular Shiite Muslim Arab

Age: Believed to be 62

A nuclear scientist who was chief scientific advisor to the Iraqi Atomic Energy Commission, Shahristani belongs to the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the largest and most powerful Shiite political group. He is said to have been tortured by Hussein’s regime for refusing to work on a nuclear weapon and reportedly spent 12 years in Abu Ghraib prison before escaping in 1991. Educated in London and Toronto as well as Iraq, he married in Canada and worked for human rights organizations in Iran and London. He returned to Iraq after Hussein’s fall and was the top contender for interim prime minister in May, but withdrew after word leaked that he was favored by the U.N. envoy in Iraq.

Adel Abdul Mehdi

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Shiite Muslim Arab

Age: 63

Finance minister in the interim government, Mehdi is also a member of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq and is believed to be close to Abdelaziz Hakim, the cleric who heads the group. He is said to have gone from membership in the Baath Party as a youth to a flirtation with Maosim before becoming a moderate Islamist. Trained in politics and economics, he was imprisoned in Iraq in the 1960s and later fled to France and lived there and in Iran before returning. He reportedly has good relations with U.S. authorities and has acknowledged the need for American troops to stay until Iraqi security forces are strong enough to defeat the insurgents.

Source: Times staff writers

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