Monday, April 24, 2006

Iraq's (Relucant) New Leader

Amir Taheri, The New York Post:
AT last!

That's the sentiment in Baghdad, as months of political wrangling seem to have ended with the nomination of Jawad al-Maliki to become Iraq's prime minister.

If all goes well, al-Maliki should be able to form a Cabinet within the next week. And that, in turn, could help end the five-month paralysis of the Iraqi administration, which has caused more harm than the terrorist insurgency.

Two questions are making the rounds: Who is al-Maliki? Can he do the job? READ MORE

Little is known about him outside a tiny circle of experts on Iraqi politics. (Most news stories got key elements of his biography wrong.) Al-Maliki has always tried to stay in the shadows. Just a few weeks ago, he was even thinking of distancing himself from active politics to focus on his literary projects.

Al-Maliki was pushed under the limelight because the outgoing premier, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, failed to garner the support needed to keep the job. The United Iraqi Alliance, the largest bloc in the new parliament, finally settled on Al-Maliki as its nominee.

His critics call him as "an apparatchik" he has been in charge of the Al-Dawa (The Call) party machine for the past two decades. In fact, it was al-Maliki who promoted al-Jaafari as candidate for the premiership last year, preferring to focus his own energies on rebuilding the party and re-uniting its two rival wings. Al-Maliki's admirers (and there are quite a few), meanwhile, point to his impeccable credentials as a freedom fighter against the Baathist tyranny led by Saddam Hussein.

An Arab Shiite born in 1950 in Twairij, a small town some 12 miles east of Karbala in central Iraq, al-Maliki is a member of the powerful Bani Malik tribe, which has branches in Iran and several Gulf Arab states.

When still in secondary school in the 1970s, Al-Maliki joined the group led by the late Shiite philosopher Sahib Dakhil al-Najafi, who became a founder of the Al-Dawa. By 1980, al-Maliki was a member of the inner circle of the late Ayatollah Muhammad Baqer al-Sadr, a Shiite clerical leader later executed by Saddam Hussein. That position brought him to the attention of the Baathist secret services - which twice tried to assassinate him. In 1981, a Ba'athist court tried him in absentia, sentencing him to death. He fled to Damascus, joining al-Jaafari, Ali Adeeb and other Al-Dawa leaders who'd already fled Iraq.

In Damascus, al-Maliki resumed his academic studies, garnering a degree in Arabic literature. He also edited the monthly magazine Al-Mawqif (The Position) which served as al-Dawa's chief mouthpiece. In 1982, the party split, partly thanks to intrigues from Syria's ruling Baath party, which wanted to control the Iraqi opposition. As a member of the anti-Syrian wing, al-Maliki was forced to flee Damascus and seek refuge in Iran.

His 20-year sojourn in Iran is marked by two major, and contradictory, features. First, he emerged as the leader of the party's most radical wing and the founder of its military branch, Jihadieh (The Holy Warriors). This was created by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard as one of several Iraqi Shiite militias Iran used in its long war against Saddam's Iraq.

Does that make al-Maliki an "Iranian candidate," as his enemies have suggested? No - in fact, throughout his time in Iran, al-Maliki was the leader of the "Arab branch" of al-Dawa - as opposed to its pro-Iranian branch.

In 2002, as the United States and its Coalition allies prepared for military intervention in Iraq, the party's pro-Iranian wing, led by al-Jaafari, totally ruled out any contact, let alone cooperation with the Americans. But al-Maliki's pro-Arab wing initiated just such contacts, first in Abu Dhabi and then in Washington. He then participated in the multiparty conference that discussed the future of Iraq in London. (Al-Jaafari boycotted.)

Al-Maliki's readiness to pay a positive role in post-Saddam Iraq was highlighted by his endorsement of the Governing Council in 2003 and his participation in drafting the country's new democratic constitution. Contrary to press reports that al-Maliki is a hardliner, he must be regarded as one of the most moderate leaders of the United Iraqi Alliance in general and Al-Dawa in particular.

But can he do the job?

Where al-Jaafari is a charismatic figure and a powerful orator, al-Maliki is a more cerebral leader - and no crowd-pleaser. In Iraqi politics today, that may be a disadvantage. It may allow other figures, notably Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, leader of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) and the maverick junior mullah Muqtada al-Sadr to claim an importance they wouldn't otherwise merit. And al-Jaafari, smarting from his failure to keep the premiership, may try to make life difficult for Prime Minister al-Maliki.

But al-Maliki has several advantages - starting with his discipline and capacity for hard work, something al-Jaafari singularly lacked. Plus, he has developed close ties with secular Shiite leaders and groups, again something that al-Jaafari never achieved. Last but not least: The Kurds and Arab Sunnis, who together account for more than 40 percent of the population, see al-Maliki as someone they can work with - another contrast with al-Jaafari.

A new government is urgently needed, for administrative paralysis is doing great harm. Government employees, including sections of the new army and police, don't get paid on time, while budgets already allocated to municipalities remain blocked for lack of ministers to sign necessary papers. The vacuum has also led to a decline in oil production, again because the bureaucratic machine has ground to a halt.

The new government then faces two other urgent tasks.

The first is to achieve consensus on an emergency economic plan, and so tie together the many (often contradictory) decisions taken since liberation in a coherent ensemble.

The second is to open negotiations with the U.S.-led Coalition about the future status of their forces in Iraq. The current U.N. mandate for the Coalition in Iraq runs out in December. It will then be up to Iraq's democratically elected government and the Coalition to decide their future relations.

Al-Maliki may have landed what must be the most difficult job in the world right now. He clearly didn't want it - and that's one reason he might succeed.

Author and journalist Amir Taheri is a member of Benador Associates.