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Iraq's Post-Election Political Landscape: Stuggling to Find Consensus

The math is straightforward. There are 275 seats in Iraq's incoming parliament, the Transitional National Assembly. It takes a two-thirds majority or 184 seats, to control it and choose Iraq's new prime minister, president and two vice-presidents.

Two political blocs can do that now. The United Iraqi Alliance, comprised of Shi'a parties, won 140 assembly seats with 48 percent of the vote. The Kurdistan Alliance gained 75 assembly seats with about 26 percent of the vote. Together, the Shi'a and Kurdish blocs have 215 seats.

Since the election, a consensus has emerged that the Shi'a will choose the prime minister and the Kurds will gain the presidency, as Kurdistan Regional Government U.S. representative Nijyar Shemdin confirms. "If the presidency, for example, goes to one side, then the prime ministership will go to the other side."

Both Shi'a and Kurds say they want the new leadership to include all Iraqi factions, and so one of the two vice-presidencies is expected to go to a Sunni leader. This despite a marginal Sunni voter turnout in the election that only gained five seats for their political bloc, "The Iraqis."

Karim al-Musawi, who represents the Shi'a political party "SCIRI" (Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq) in the United States, says such inclusion is vital because of the challenge in building a new Iraq. "This year 2005 is a year of very critical missions," he says, "and to achieve those missions we have to make a consensus between all Iraqis and all parties."

The most formidable task is writing Iraq's new constitution. The Transitional Administrative Law presently governing the country says a draft constitution should be completed by August so it can be put before the voters this year. But that could be difficult because of the diverse, even conflicting positions of Iraq's factions.

Sunni concerns are explained by current Iraqi Minister of Industry Hachem al-Hassani. "For the Sunnis, the most they are worried about is to keep this country together in a unified Iraq, not to divide the country according to sect or nationality."

But Kurdish Regional Government official Nijyar Shemdin stresses that the autonomy enjoyed by his people since 1992 must be preserved. "There has to be built-in assurances in the next constitution so that their own society, their own economy, their own culture is not taken away from them," he insists.

The Kurds also insist on a referendum in the northern city of Kirkuk to decide whether it, and the massive oil resources underneath, should be brought under Kurdish control. Another group, the Turkmen, is strongly opposed, as the Iraqi Turkmen Front's London representative, Asif Sertturkmen, asserts. "In the new constitution," he says, "Kirkuk should be given special status and never annexed to the Kurdish region, the so-called Kurdistan."

For their part, the Shi'a want the new constitution to recognize Islam as a source of law for Iraq, though not the only one. This reflects what has been set forth in the Transitional Administrative Law, or "TAL" written during the term of U.S. administrator Paul Bremer. Shi'a leaders have said Iraq should have a secular government, not a religious one as in Iran. Even so, Sunni official Hachem al-Hassani expresses concerns that those promoting secularism might be overwhelmed. "What we have in the TAL is enough. But some of the religious fanatics probably will argue to have more role of religion in the constitution."

Peter Galbraith, a former U.S. ambassador with the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation in Washington, says the future of Iraq unity largely depends on what the Kurds gain in the constitution and the new government. "If the Arab Iraqis turn to the Kurds and say 'Yes, we understand that you've been running your own affairs for the past fourteen years and you want to keep doing it', the Kurds will find reasons to cooperate with Iraq." He adds "If you try to force them to be part of the center, the population will rebel against that and there will almost certainly not be an Iraq in the next five years."

If Iraq's factions are unable to write a constitution by August, the deadline may be extended to 2006. Both Iraqis and outside observers say building this country as a democracy is a learning experience for all involved, especially for groups that had no political voice for decades under Saddam Hussein. What remains to be seen is whether Shi'a, Sunni, Kurds, Turkmen and others are willing to compromise in order for all to achieve a new Iraq.