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Iraq's struggle for unity

April 04, 2006

SHIITE UNITY IN IRAQ has to be sacrificed for the sake of national unity. The only chance for that country to avoid a full-fledged sectarian war, such as the conflict that ravaged Lebanon for more than a decade, is through the formation of a strong national unity government, and the only chance for that to happen is for enough Shiite factions (which represent a majority of the population) to break with interim Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari, the Shiite leader who is clinging to power, to build alliances with Sunni and Kurdish political parties.

So it was entirely appropriate for Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to fly to Baghdad last weekend, along with Jack Straw, her British counterpart, to express impatience with the ongoing stalemate and Jafari's role in extending it. Washington does not want to interfere too much in the politics to form a new government that has been taking place since the parliamentary elections in December, but the U.S. has invested too much in the future stability of Iraq to stand on the sidelines while things implode. U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad has also reportedly made it clear that the Bush administration would like to see Jafari step aside.

Jafari was nominated to lead the new government on Feb. 11 by a ballot of the 130 Shiite bloc members within the 275-member parliament, but he has been unable to cobble together an outright majority. The prime minister has proved so unpopular that he has ruptured the working alliance between Saddam Hussein's former victims -- the Shiites and the Kurds.

That Kurds share Sunni mistrust of Jafari, who has served as prime minister for a year, is not surprising. His government has failed to end the violence afflicting Baghdad and other parts of the country, and it has shown little progress on the reconstruction front. The prime minister has been rather cavalier about the emergence of Shiite death squads and the increasing power of Shiite militias. He has even gone so far as to say that they should be incorporated into the armed forces. Jafari's main backer these days is Muqtada Sadr, the firebrand cleric who controls his own militia.

The good, although potentially destabilizing, news is that one of the two major Shiite parties -- the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq -- does appear to be ending its support of Jafari's tenure. The prospect of an open rift between Shiite blocs is alarming because each controls well-armed militias, but it also seems to be a precondition for the creation of a national unity government that could include Sunnis, Kurds and Shiites. These are decisive days in Baghdad, and the U.S. government is right to try to prod the process along.

Others with even more sway over Shiite politicians in Baghdad -- namely Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani and the government of Iran -- should also be more forceful about goading Shiite power brokers to find a prime minister who is more amenable to Sunnis and Kurds. The regime in Tehran may flirt with the fantasy of a permanently splintered, chaotic Iraq, but that is not a prospect that is really in its own long-term interest. It's in everyone's interest for Shiite unity to give way to Iraqi unity.

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