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Irritated Iraqis Wait for Change

Times Staff Writer

With Iraqis increasingly concerned about a security vacuum, the man who is expected to become the next prime minister on Saturday defended the winning blocs, which have not formed a government nearly six weeks after millions of people risked their lives to vote.

In an interview, Ibrahim Jafari, the nominee of the slate that won the most votes in the Jan. 30 election, said it could take two more weeks to close a deal.

“It’s not a simple experiment,” Jafari said, trying to explain the delay in forming a government. “It’s a complex one.”

Behind the scenes, the two largest vote-getters, Jafari’s Shiite Muslim-dominated United Iraqi Alliance and the Kurds, are engaged in frantic negotiations. The groups are meeting almost round the clock, and there has been constant maneuvering as the two try to compromise while satisfying their respective constituencies.

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Last week, some politicians announced that a government would be set by the first meeting of the new National Assembly, scheduled for Wednesday. But now it appears likely that the meeting will be ceremonial while negotiations continue.

That leaves Iraqis, frightened by two large suicide bombings this month that killed nearly 200 people, wondering why they braved insurgents’ threats to go to the ballot box.

Shopkeeper Mohammed Saddoun stood in front of his storefront grocery last week with several friends, lamenting the delay.

“I am not only frustrated, I am ready to burst with anger,” Saddoun said. “We put our souls in the ... palms of our hands and went to the ballot centers. You remember the threats there were that they would kill people who voted.

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“Well, if they cannot form a government, then I think they are not qualified to manage the country’s affairs. This vacuum of power increases the number of terrorist acts, it opens the way for the terrorists.”

Sabah Yusef, 25, a political science student at Baghdad University, described an overwhelming sense of disappointment and confusion. A Sunni Muslim, he did not vote. Now, with the government seemingly adrift, he says he has no idea who is running his country.

“I feel sad to see the Iraqi government in such a situation. I keep wishing they would agree on a government and then hold general elections for all Iraqis.... Until now we know nothing about how the government will be formed. Nothing has surfaced,” he said.

Throughout Baghdad, one of the most mixed cities in Iraq, there are rumblings of discontent and cynicism, even though many people here voted for one of the three slates that took the most votes: the United Iraqi Alliance; Iraqi List, the ticket of interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi; or a coalition of the main Kurdish parties.

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The doubts are still deeper among those who did not vote -- supporters of anti-American cleric Muqtada Sadr and many Sunnis Arabs who feel they have been left out of the political equation.

Toward evening in Sadr City recently, several tribal sheiks gathered outside Sadr’s office to chat before prayers.

“You know, we’ve never had any real government and now this is not a real government either; these are all the same people who came riding on American tanks. They did nothing before and they will do nothing in the future,” said Awad Abid Zubaidi, 35, before adding a common refrain: “We don’t really know who is in charge or whether a government will be formed.”

Western diplomats say they are not concerned about the delay in forming a government, pointing out that this is the Iraqis’ first experience in the democratic jockeying for political power.

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The United Iraqi Alliance is made up of several Shiite religious parties as well as some independents and secular groups. The Kurds, who would be the minority partner in the government, are united on most issues.

United Iraqi Alliance member Ahmad Chalabi, who appears to be positioning himself as a broker, traveled to the Kurdish north Friday to hear the Kurds’ demands. Chalabi was based in Kurdistan for long periods and has a close relationship with the two largest political parties there.

At stake is the relative power of the different slates; control over key ministries and other important positions in the government; and policies on some of the most contentious issues in Iraq, such as control of the region, including the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, and the degree of provincial autonomy.

The latter two are of chief importance to the Kurds, who have held a relatively efficient autonomous region in northern Iraq since the United States and allies declared the north a “no-fly zone” after the 1991 Persian Gulf War. They do not want interference from the new government.

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Some of these issues were to wait until the writing of the constitution, but the Kurds appear eager to resolve them now.

“The Kurds are making demands no one can grant and still keep the support of the Iraqi people,” said Jaber Habib, a professor of political science at Baghdad University.

A key sticking point is the transitional administrative law, which serves as an interim constitution for the country. The Kurds want to be assured, first of all, that the law will continue to govern the country until a permanent constitution is written.

The way the Kurds read the law, it would give them control of Kirkuk by reestablishing their majority status in the population there and by readjusting the Kurdish region’s borders to include parts of Kirkuk province. Former President Saddam Hussein redrew the borders, shaving off parts of Kirkuk and giving it to neighboring provinces.

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The transitional law, written when the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority ran the country, essentially allows the reversal of Hussein’s policy. It states that in those places where Hussein pushed out the native people, such as the Kirkuk region, a program should be instituted to restore property to those who lost it and compensate those who are giving it up.

Second, the Kurds want to retain the deputy prime minister slot and be given Cabinet posts in two of the five top ministries. In addition to Foreign Affairs, they would like the Finance Ministry, said Rosh Shawais, one of two vice presidents in the outgoing interim government.

Third, the Kurds want a provision in any agreement with the alliance that says that if they withdraw from the government, the government will fall. That would give them, the minority partner, a veto over policy. The United Iraqi Alliance has categorically rejected this provision. The Kurds, most of whom are Sunnis, counter that they need guarantees that Shiites will not impose a religious government.

The United Iraqi Alliance has concerns about many of the Kurds’ demands. In the interview Saturday, Jafari signaled that the alliance did not feel bound to adhering strictly to the transitional administrative law, known as the TAL.

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“The TAL has many positive sides ... but there are also many negative aspects to it ... or missing aspects of the TAL,” Jafari said. “Since we are coming to the new constitution, we are trying to bridge those gaps. But we can make use of the positive parts of it.”

On Kirkuk, too, Jafari indicated that there were serious disagreements with the Kurds. “My comfort and my real agreement will be with what my people in that part of Iraq want. The demography of Kirkuk is different from [Kurdish provinces] Dohuk and Irbil -- it is multiethnic, Turkmen and Arab.

“We have to have the permanent solution, and that should be through the constitution,” he said, implicitly rejecting the Kurds’ demand that the transitional law form the basis of Kirkuk policy.

Also difficult is figuring out how to bring the Sunni Arabs into the calculation. Few of their representatives are in the National Assembly because a disproportionately small number of Sunni Arabs voted, either out of fear that they would be attacked or because they had no faith in the process.

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The result is that they are leery of joining the new government, yet resentful that they have no role in it.

In the midst of this political maelstrom, work at many ministries has slowed and in some cases stopped altogether. Many ministry workers get jobs through friends and relatives, and with the people at the top about to change, many employees worry they may lose their jobs. Others are trying to get in the good graces of those they think may lead the ministry.

The situation is particularly delicate at the Interior and Defense ministries, whose mandates involve national security.

“These agencies, Interior and Defense, are close to the government, so when the government is handicapped, they are handicapped,” said Baghdad University professor Habib. “In the United States there is a civil service that keeps on working no matter what; there is nothing like this in Iraq. So everyone in this period is waiting and seeing.”

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Turnover in both key security posts is almost certain. The current prime minister, Iyad Allawi, is a possible nominee for the Defense Ministry, and the Interior Ministry post is widely expected to go to a member of the United Iraqi Alliance.


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