April 03, 2005

The New Sunni Speaker

Ah, there seems to have been a bit of progress made in the always-exciting game of trying to form a new Iraqi government. Quite obviously the newly selected Sunni speaker of the Assembly, Hajim al-Hassani, won't win over any Sunnis still unwilling to support the new government. Al-Hassani, after all, supported the invasion of al-Fallujah and stayed behind in Allawi's cabinet even after his own party decided to boycott the interim government. One Sunni told the AP, "How could we just trust such a traitor?"

Nevertheless, the choice here seems to be less about reaching out to Sunnis and more about pacifying the Shiites, who are getting mighty antsy about all this gridlock. Anthony Shadid's report in the Washington Post today is pretty chilling in this regard. Some Shiite clerics, it seems, think the U.S. intentionally rigged the interim constitution to make it hard for Iraqis to form a new government—all so that the Shiites would be denied power. Now that's probably true, but if the Shiites start blaming the United States for their failure to form a new government, things will get ugly.

How ugly? A spokesman for Grand Ayatollah Ishaq Fayadh told the Post, "In the event [the Iraqis] cannot form a leadership for the assembly and a government, the marjaiya [i.e. senior clergy] will not remain with its hands shackled." Another senior ayatollah, Mohammed Taqi Mudrassi, in Kerbala: "The political crisis will continue, and the result will perhaps be that Shiites will use the weapon of millions protesting." Meanwhile, Mudrassi goes on to suggest the Shiites discard the interim constitution and form their own government. Um, right. Civil war anyone? At least for the time being, the biggest marja of them all, Ali Sistani, can keep these folks on a short leash, but Sistani's not the pope—his vast support among Iraq's Shiite population isn't absolute, and depends to a large extent on his ability to deliver a new Iraqi government. If he can't do that, ayatollahs like Fayadh and Mudrassi may find their own support swell, which is not a good sign at all.

UPDATE: One other thing. The Shiites no doubt knew that al-Hassani would be unpopular among the Sunnis, yet they nominated him anyway. Why? Because the only alternative was a Sunni Mishaan al-Juburi, who was accused of being an ex-Baathist "whose hands were drenched in the blood of Iraqis." So the Shiites said no. But as Ayad Rahim reports, thousands of Sunnis in Saddam's hometown of Tikrit rallied for Juburi's nomination. He seems to have a good deal of popular support in the relevant areas, then. So that means, perhaps, the Shiites are willing to put their (understandable) anti-Baath principles ahead of their Sunni outreach program; another ominous sign.

MORE UPDATE: Oh, right. I thought al-Juburi's name sounded familiar. He was the self-appointed governor of Mosul during this ugly little incident in 2003. Seems Juburi was none too popular among the legions of pro-Saddam Iraqis in Mosul for backing the United States. And the al-Juburi tribe itself—one of the biggest in Iraq—practically disowned Mishaan. So maybe he's not all that popular outside Tikrit. Hard to tell...
-- Brad Plumer 4:38 PM || ||