MER Comment
(translated from original French)

"Foreign Forces Must Leave Iraq as Soon as Possible," Declares the Head of the Shiite Alliance

By Patrice Claude
Le Monde

Monday 08 March 2005

The elected Parliament will meet March 16. From our special envoy to Baghdad.
Permanent American bases in Iraq? The question seems so incongruous to His Most Austere "Eminence Abdul Aziz Al-Hakim," (as the leader of the Shiite party which won the January 30 elections identifies himself on his visiting card) that he almost bursts out laughing. "Ha! Ha! No. No one in Iraq desires the establishment of permanent foreign bases on our land. The United Nations Security Council resolutions are clear: it will be up to the elected Iraqi government, when the time comes, to give those forces a specific departure date. As soon as possible."

The head of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq - SCIRI, an embarrassing name today and one which should soon evolve towards something a little less radical - is, in fact, there to announce to us the imminent formation of this first legitimized government of the post-Saddam Hussein era. The parleys between the parties have been going on for five weeks and are nearly over.

"We've agreed to hold the first session of the elected National Assembly on March 16," he announces. The date is highly symbolic for the Kurdish minority, since it was on March 16, 1988 that the fallen regime had had around 5,000 residents of Halabja, in the north-east of the country, gassed. "We are hopeful that our discussions with our Kurdish brothers and the other groups we hope to bring into the government will be completed by this date." Seventeen years later to the day, and, excepting some dramatic event that is always possible in the prevailing political configurations today, Iraq will then have a head of state, a Prime Minister, and a government truly resultant from a national election in which, however imperfect it may have been, 58% of its citizens participated.

A member of one of the three great Shiite religious dynasties in the country, the Hodjatoleslam Al-Hakim spent more than twenty-three years in exile in Teheran, where he himself, and his older brother who was assassinated on his return to Iraq in May 2003, created the SCIRI. He was number one on the list of the 21 parties in the United Alliance, which won an absolute majority of the 275 seats in the new Assembly.

Nonetheless, the Fundamental Transitional Law, which American lawyers concocted before the partial restitution of their sovereignty to Iraqis on June 30, 2004, forces the Assembly to approve the Presidential Council by a 60% majority. Only the three members of the Presidential Council may propose the members of the next government from among those elected, beginning with its Prime Minister, most likely the head of the rival Islamist party, Daawa, Ibrahim Al-Jaffari. In order to impose the men and women of its choice, the Unified Alliance, which had announced its intention to include the largest number of parties, "Sunni and Christians included," into a kind of "government of national unity," therefore had to at first obtain the agreement of the second largest party in the Assembly, the so-called "Kurdish bloc," which controls 20% of the seats.

The Kurds have numerous and precise demands, which have been the source of much of the delay in forming the government. How many and which ministries for each of the competing parties? Even if the parties had apparently reached an understanding that the Presidential Council should be led by Jalal Talabani, a major Kurdish political personality who should become Head of State, and that his vice presidents should be, one from the Shiite tradition, and probably the other from the Sunni tradition, the totality of the process must still be carefully choreographed before it can be approved by the Assembly without any hitch.

With the gray beard and black turban of the "Sayyeds," the recognized descendants of the prophet among the Shiites, Abdul Aziz Al-Hakim agrees to one of the main Kurdish demands: the establishment of an Iraqi federation. To those on his side and elsewhere who fear that that will lead to a division of the country, the Sayyed responds: "More than 60 countries operate this way. If it can resolve problems in Iraq, why not?"

On the other hand, what is "unacceptable" in his eyes is to deliberate with the guerrilla movement. Ahmad Chalabi, the secular Shiite businessman who was accepted into the party and who will have a seat in the new Assembly, has recently let it be known that he has conducted "several meetings with the rebels to convince them to lay down their arms." Mr. Al-Hakim, for his part, refuses "to talk to these killers and criminals."

Last week, following the death of three members of the Badr organization - the former "Badr Brigade" that was SCIRI's military arm - in a police station, His Eminence launched a violent diatribe against the rampant "re-Baathization" of the security services. He repeats, "Everyone knows that the Baathists have infiltrated the army and the police. We must flush them out."