Shiite Bloc Ready to Forgo Interior Post

Times Staff Writer

Leaders of Iraq’s powerful Shiite Muslim political bloc said Friday that they were willing to give up control over the Interior Ministry and its police forces, a move that could ease both the fears of other sectarian groups and the formation of a new government.

Under Shiite leadership for the last year, the ministry has been accused of providing cover for death squads and militias that have targeted minority Sunni Arabs, stoking mistrust of security forces and spurring the growth of destabilizing armed groups.

Khudair Khuzai, the top Shiite negotiator at talks on forming the government, said in an interview Friday that his bloc had proposed surrendering control over the state’s internal security apparatus. In return, the coalition would want control over the Defense Ministry and the country’s armed forces, Khuzai said.


Willingness to give up control of the Interior Ministry, which has far more influence than the Defense Ministry over the lives of Iraqis, could reassure Sunnis who fear that Shiites plan to wield the country’s domestic security apparatus as a sectarian weapon.

“We don’t want to make obstacles and we want the negotiations to proceed quickly,” said Khuzai, a confidant of Prime Minister-designate Nouri Maliki.

Despite widespread criticism, the Shiite coalition -- made up of political figures who were hunted, jailed and tortured by Saddam Hussein’s security apparatus -- had vowed to not give up control of the ministry. But U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and other ranking U.S. officials have repeatedly called on Iraqi leaders to name nonpolitical professionals without ties to militias to head key security posts.

With a prime minister, presidential council and parliamentary leadership named, the last significant hurdle to a functioning government is filling the Interior and Defense ministries and other sensitive posts such as Oil, Finance and Foreign Affairs.

Iraqi negotiators, often meeting for hours in Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone or at the home of President Jalal Talabani, must balance pressure from party loyalists who demand power and patronage with domestic and international pressure to appoint competent, independent technocrats to head government agencies.

U.S. and Iraqi officials fear full-blown civil war if security ministries continue on their sectarian course, with the Interior Ministry becoming the domain of Shiite militias and the Defense Ministry run by Sunni Arabs and ethnic Kurds. A swapping of ministries, or at least a willingness to shuffle the top posts, could help avoid fears that the country is being carved up into permanent fiefdoms.

Much criticism has been directed at Bayan Jabr, the interim Interior Minister, who belongs to the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iran, the dominant party in the Shiite bloc. The party is headed by Abdelaziz Hakim and is linked to the Badr Brigade, an Iranian-trained militia that fought Hussein’s Sunni-dominated regime and is now believed to have infiltrated the security forces.

Friday’s comments by Khuzai and other Shiite officials were among the first indications that the Shiite bloc might be willing to compromise on control of the Interior Ministry. At the very least, Shiite officials said, the post might go to a more independent figure from their coalition rather than to a politician allied with the major Shiite groups, at least two of which have powerful militias.

Names floated included that of Hussein Shahristani, a former nuclear scientist and a prominent independent member of the Shiite bloc, and Qassem Dawood, a moderate Shiite.

“Everyone recognizes there was a problem with the minister of Interior,” said an official close to the Shiite coalition who spoke on condition of anonymity. “They had a very bad experience before. We don’t want to go through that again.”

Some observers say the idea of finding technocrats within the Sunni and Shiite coalitions to fill sensitive posts is a pipe dream, and predict that the positions will be filled according to ethnic and sectarian formulas.

“This cannot be achieved, since all the candidates will ultimately have a political allegiance to one side or another,” said Fadhil Shara, a politician loyal to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr.

In the negotiations, officials have suggested handing control of the Interior Ministry to a moderate figure from either the main Sunni bloc or from former interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi’s secular Iraqi National List.

“It is not necessarily that Allawi would be the one to get the post but that someone from our coalition might get it,” said Izzat Shahbandar, a member of Allawi’s group, a secular coalition that most resembles Western parties.

Several Sunni politicians said they were skeptical about the Shiites’ newfound flexibility on the Interior Ministry post. They called it a ploy to cast leaders of the dominant coalition as nonsectarian liberals when they really had no intention of giving up control over what has become the country’s most powerful institution.

“We are grateful that they felt they are not qualified at running this ministry. We also feel that they are not capable of running the Ministry of Defense, either,” said Dhafir Ani, a Sunni lawmaker. “This offer was a maneuver.”

Most likely the security posts will be announced as a package deal, officials said. Under the arrangement being hammered out, each of the blocs that won seats in the December parliamentary elections would assign party members to ministerial and deputy positions in Interior and Defense as well as director of the intelligence service and chairman of the recently formed National Security Council, which must approve all security decisions.

Though cordial, the atmosphere in the meetings can be intense.

“There are some real obsessions,” said Kamal Saadi, a Shiite legislator. “The Sunnis worry that the Ministry of Interior will continue the same strategy it followed before, while the Shiites have the same worries about the Ministry of Defense, which is dominated by Kurds and Sunnis.”