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International Journalists Discuss New Iraqi Leadership

Iraq’s parliament last week elected Kurdish militia leader Jalal Talabani as Iraq’s new President. President Talabani then appointed Ibrahim al-Jaafari, leader of one of Iraq’s major Shi’ite religious parties, as Prime Minister. Iraq’s major political groups had spent weeks locked in bitter talks on power sharing, so announcements of the new Iraqi leadership brought relief to most regional analysts and members of the press.

Iraqi Arab reporter Ahmad Jawal called Parliament’s choice of Jalal Talabani as his country’s first Kurdish president “something great for the Iraqi people.” Speaking with VOA News Now’s International Press Club host Judith Latham, Mr. Jawal said it shows that there is a place for everyone, regardless of his nationality or religion, in the new Iraq. Ahmad Jawad who writes for al-Manar daily newspaper, suggested that Iraq’s new Prime Minister might be able to complete his cabinet appointments in about a week. But he said that the government would face “serious obstacles” in writing a new constitution, and he doubted that the job could be finished by August, that a referendum could be held by October, or that elections could be held by December.

Kurdish journalist Hiwa Osman, who works in northern Iraq with the London-based Institute of War and Peace Reporting, agreed. Nonetheless, he said that the dominant mood on the street is one of optimism and that most Iraqis have welcomed the choice of a Kurdish president and a Shi’ite prime minister. And he noted that many Iraqis feel it signifies their ownership of the political process. Particularly for Kurds, he said, the choice of Jalal Talabani as President has ended their sense of being “second-class citizens.” But Mr. Osman said that the new Iraqi leadership would face numerous challenges – for example, preventing regional interference in Iraq’s internal affairs, bringing Sunni Arabs on board, and creating a moderate leadership that would reflect the majority of Iraqis.

New York-based Egyptian journalist Mona Eltahawy, who writes a column for the London-based pan-Arab newspaper Asharq al-Awsat, said the new leadership’s greatest challenge would be to establish security.

And that was underscored on Tuesday when, during a visit to Baghdad, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld urged the new Iraqi leaders not to purge their security forces of all pre-war Ba’ath party officials. Mona Eltahawi said she agrees with many U.S. analysts who view it as the most crucial issue facing Iraq’s first democratically elected government in 50 years. She called Washington’s earlier decision to disband the Iraqi army and its “de-Ba’athification process a major mistake, but she welcomed Secretary Rumsfeld’s recent attempt to address the problem. Mona Eltahawy said it is critical to bring Sunni Arabs into the new government to help write a constitution that in turn can get approved in a national referendum.

Journalists from the region agreed that the challenges facing the new Iraqi leadership are immense, but they also described themselves as “encouraged” by signs that Iraq may be moving slowly toward a multi-ethnic democracy.

To listen to all of the comments, click on the audio link above.