U.S., Britain Try to Ease Shiites’ Worries

Times Staff Writer

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her British counterpart, wrapping up a brief visit to Iraq on Monday, attempted to placate the fears of the country’s Shiite Muslim majority in anticipation of the likely ouster of interim Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari.

Rice and Foreign Secretary Jack Straw heaped praise on Iraq’s highest-ranking Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, whose “remarkable spiritual guidance” has helped calm Iraq, Straw said. They also spoke of the Shiite majority’s longtime suffering and reiterated that Shiites had the power to choose the nation’s top official.

“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,” Rice said at a news conference.

But the soothing words came amid a concerted effort on the part of the U.S. and Britain as well as Iraq’s Sunni Arabs, Kurds and a growing chorus of Jafari’s erstwhile Shiite allies to convince the leader to step aside.


Jafari has been criticized for his inability to win over doubters and change his governing style amid an ongoing wave of sectarian violence.

On Sunday, Rice questioned Jafari’s leadership, saying that “in the time since his nomination ... he’s not been able” to put together a government.

Jafari was nominated for a full four-year term in February by a Shiite bloc that holds 130 of the parliament’s 275 seats.

Jafari, a religious scholar, won the Shiite coalition’s nomination by a single vote thanks to the support of radical cleric Muqtada Sadr.

Iraq’s Sunnis, Kurds and majority Shiites have been locked in a frequently violent power struggle since the 2003 U.S.-led toppling of Saddam Hussein.

Officials and ordinary Iraqis worry that the deadlock in creating a new government after the Dec. 15 parliamentary elections has created a political vacuum and contributed to the violence, which included several car bombings Monday. At least six U.S. military personnel were killed over the weekend in violence.

Officials in Washington and London have been pushing for the formation of a new government as a sign of progress to bolster faltering public support for the war among Americans and Britons.

Though Jafari has refused to resign, even Shiite officials are predicting that his days are numbered. A high-ranking member of Jafari’s alliance, speaking on condition of anonymity, said three of the seven blocs within the Shiite coalition had already submitted letters demanding that he withdraw.

“Jafari won’t be the next prime minister,” the member predicted. “We have told him about what’s happening, but he’s still hanging on.”

But analysts say Jafari’s ouster would be no panacea for Iraq’s myriad security and political woes. Other potential prime ministerial candidates have serious drawbacks and weaknesses too. And crossing Sadr, who has emerged as Jafari’s primary patron, could spark unrest in eastern Baghdad and the southern Iraqi cities where the young cleric’s militia is active.

Washington’s problems with Jafari date back to last year, when he was named interim prime minister after the country’s first legislative elections. Privately, U.S. officials have been expressing frustration with Jafari, saying he is unable to handle the job.

When his government proved unable to provide basic subsidized goods to Iraqis, American officials feared that the public’s confidence in the government was being undermined.

They have grown increasingly concerned that the deadlock over the government was due to his lack of political savvy.

But the actual American push for Jafari’s replacement appeared to come more recently. An official in Washington said that less than three weeks ago, when U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad passed along word to Washington that the Americans in Baghdad wanted Jafari out, senior U.S. officials overruled him, continuing to say the administration would never intervene to try to influence the Iraqis’ choice of prime minister.

But that stance appears to have changed in recent days.

Officials in Washington believe it could be advantageous if one of Jafari’s rivals, especially front-runner Adel Abdul Mehdi, got the job. Mehdi’s boss, Shiite cleric Abdelaziz Hakim, would presumably have to give up the Interior Ministry posts he now controls. Hakim’s followers have allegedly allowed the ministry to engage in extrajudicial killings and run secret torture chambers that have become a focal point of the sectarian tension.

At the same time, the Americans are acutely aware of Hakim’s strong ties to Iran. Though Jafari has been criticized for being too close to Iran, Hakim’s party -- largely a creation of Iranian security forces in the early 1980s -- is probably far closer.

In a culture that values honor and appearances highly, U.S. and Iraqi officials must also find a face-saving way for Jafari to step down. Iraqi officials say the Shiite coalition will hold talks today and Wednesday, hoping to convince Jafari to withdraw. One solution might be to put the matter to a vote before the 275-seat parliament and allow the politicians to build new alliances.

“The door will be open for anyone to nominate himself,” said Suha Azzawi, a political scientist who served on the panel that drafted the constitution last year. “Many people will change their votes, and all the balances will be changed.”

U.S. and British officials continued to woo Sistani to support or at least remain neutral over Jafari’s ouster as a countermeasure to Sadr and his militia.

“Although there have been many difficulties, without the remarkable spiritual guidance shown by his eminence, this country, for all the problems that it now faces, would not have in its hands the potential for a very much better future,” Straw said of Sistani.

Rice spoke of the mass slayings of Shiites under Hussein, emphasizing their suffering at the hand of his Sunni-led government and reiterating the Shiite bloc’s right to appoint a prime minister from within its ranks.

“That must be someone who can unify the various blocs,” she said.

Times staff writers Paul Richter in Washington, Shamil Aziz, Raheem Salman and Saif Rasheed in Baghdad and special correspondent Othman Ghanim in Basra contributed to this report.