New democracy, same old politics

For a country ruled by strongmen for half a century, Iraq is taking to the rough and tumble of representative democracy with a vengeance.

With backroom deals and patronage promises, sharp elbows and pointed arm-twisting, a panoply of Iraqi politicos are laboring to build a national government from a fractious populous riven by ethnic, religious and tribal rivalries and long-held hostilities.

In its first month as a newborn democracy, Iraq already has seen a dimming of the prospects of some of the previously powerful, while others who had been largely counted out are back in the game.

Iraq is now hammering out a government. Officially, the newly elected 275-person National Assembly will select an interim president and two vice presidents, who then will select a prime minister. The first three posts are largely ceremonial, while the latter will wield the power.

Because no one faction in Iraq won a majority in the Jan. 30 vote, parties speaking for the Shiia Muslim majority and Sunni Muslim minority, along with Assyrian Christians, Turkmen and an assortment of other groups, are furiously building coalitions and horse-trading behind the scenes.

The outcome is far from certain. About all that everyone agrees on is that the stakes are huge, likely determining whether Iraq descends into a civil war and whether – and when – U.S. troops can begin to come home.

Here’s a look at some of the pivotal players in this developing democratic drama:

Ibrahim al-Jaafari. A mild-mannered doctor, father of five and front man for the oldest Shiia Muslim political party, Jaafari emerged this week as the man to beat for prime minister. Leader of the Dawa Party, which unsuccessfully rebelled against Saddam Hussein’s regime in the 1970s, Jaafari spent 30 years in exile, returning only after Saddam’s 2003 ouster.

A champion of a strong Islamic influence on government, Jaafari pledged this week to be an inclusive leader and said he has no interest in creating a theocracy akin to that in neighbor Iran, which has been a big backer of the Dawa Party.

Others, including Iraq’s Sunni minority and Bush administration insiders, aren’t fully buying Jaafari’s promises, which they worry might simply be a politically correct cover story designed to obscure an open door to Iranian influence in Iraq.

Ahmad Chalabi. Once the favorite Iraqi of the White House and Pentagon, the U.S.-educated Chalabi fell from favor in Washington when it became known that he was the primary source of what turned out to be flat-out wrong information that Saddam was sitting on an arsenal of deadly toxins and the weapons to spew them. His allegedly shady financial dealings also dimmed his luster in the United States.

After Iraqi impatience with continuing violence and the snail’s pace of reconstruction soured many Iraqis on the American presence, Chalabi, long a secular figure, aligned himself and his United Iraqi Alliance with the Shiia opposition. He emerged as a surprisingly strong candidate for prime minister after the January election. Under major pressure from other Shiia wings to back Jaafari, Chalabi withdrew his bid this week and vowed fealty to Jaafari.

Now, Jaafari and his compatriots owe Chalabi big time, though what he might be able to wrangle in return is not yet clear. At the very least, he is certain to have earned a large measure of influence, much to Washington’s concern.

Ayad Allawi. A surgeon and longtime exile with a Tony Soprano-like persona, Allawi has served for eight months as Iraq’s official leader since U.S. forces formally ended the occupation.

As interim prime minister, the tough-talking, secular Shiia has drawn praise for his steely resolve in the face of repeated assassination attempts and for his efforts to meld a new national Iraqi identity to replace the factional differences of the past.

After his slate of assembly candidates came in third in the election, Allawi said he would willingly cede control to the winner. But this week, after Jaafari surfaced as the likely prime minister-to-be, Allawi announced he would form a new coalition to try to keep his job and deny top power to the Shiite slate, who he called “political Islamists.”

Allawi said he feared Jaafari would exclude Sunni Iraqis and former members of Saddam’s Baath Party from power, which Allawi said would push Iraq toward civil war. He announced the formation of a new coalition of non-Shiia Iraqi groups, but has not yet specified whom he has recruited to his side.

Jalal Talabani. The eloquent leader of one of the top ethnic Kurdish parties, Talabani is all but assured to be named to the generally ceremonial post of president – regardless of who becomes prime minister.

The long-suffering Kurds, 100,000 of whom were executed or forced from their northern Iraq homes by Saddam’s forces, now are in the sweet position of being kingmakers. Thanks to their big voter turnout, the Kurds control a pivotal 45 seats in the assembly and the attendant clout that comes with them. Both Jaafari and Allawi already are courting Talabani and his fellow Kurds to join their respective coalitions.

Long an advocate of Kurdish independence, Talabani is expected to demand a big price for his support. Already, he and other Kurds are demanding that the disputed northern city of Kirkuk, in the heart of Iraq’s richest oil territory, come under Kurdish control.

They also are demanding that they not lose the autonomy the Kurds have enjoyed in the northern third of Iraq after U.S. troops established and protected for 10 years a Kurdish “safe haven” since the Persian Gulf War.

But the Kurds themselves are fractious, with Talabani often at odds with Massoud Barzani, the leader of a competing Kurdish party. Alawi and Jaafari are reported to be making overtures to Barzani as well.

(E-mail Lisa Hoffman at HoffmanL(at)