When Iraqis voted on January 30, theyempowered the Shi’a and the Kurds – two groups former dictator Saddam Hussein had shut out of his Baath Party government. Now there is a Shi’a prime minister, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, and a Kurdish president, Jalal Talabani. The Shi’a and Kurds also control at least 215 seats in the 275 member Transitional National Assembly.
The new Iraqi leadership also includes two Sunnis, former interim president Ghazi al-Yawer as one of Iraq’s two vice presidents and Hajim al-Hassani as parliament’s speaker. Those two key positions were given to Sunni Iraqis despite their minimal participation in January’s elections.
As President Talabani sees it, the move was important to maintain a sense of inclusion and national unity. “I hope these alliances will continue," he says. "I hope the Sunni Arabs will be active in the new process.”
Salameh Nematt, the Washington Bureau Chief for the Arabic-language newspaper al-Hayat, says having all Iraqi factions represented is essential to give the new government public support and advance its agenda. “The more credible the Iraqi government, the faster the process of rebuilding Iraq and building its military and security apparatus so it can take care of itself so the Americans can basically withdraw from direct confrontation ‘flash points’ and have the Iraqis do the job themselves,” he says. On that point, President Talabani has said the U.S. may be able to pull out within two years if Iraqi security forces get properly trained by then.
Another issue the new Iraqi government must address is writing a new constitution. The Transitional Administrative Law or TAL now governing Iraq has set an August 15 deadline for finishing the document. Parliament speaker Hajim al-Hassani explains why lawmakers may invoke a section of the TAL allowing them to extend the deadline. He also says the new constitution doesn’t need to be significantly different from the TAL in some key areas.
“I think we will probably take the extension," he says, adding "To me, it was a given. You know, there are many issues that need to be worked out. All the rights we had mentioned in the TAL should stay there. As for the role of religion, what we have in the TAL is enough.”
Iraq’s political factions are sharply divided on religious and ethnic lines. Each comes to the table with firm positions, such as the Kurds’ insistence on a federal Iraq with regional autonomy. The Arabs and Turkmen demand that the northern city of Kirkuk and the surrounding oil fields it be protected from a possible Kurdish takeover. Parliament speaker al-Hassani says his group, the Sunni, want a strongly unified Iraq with no special rights for any faction.
But analyst Phoebe Marr with the U-S Institute for Peace in Washington says the process of drafting the constitution may well change Iraq’s political dynamics. “These firm positions and firm alliances – the Kurdish bloc, the Shi’a bloc – are likely to loosen up quite a bit. And different kinds of alliances and groups may come together on different issues as this constitutional procedure goes along,” she says.
But another observer, Judith Van Rest at the International Republican Institute in Washington, disagrees. She expects the Shi’a and Kurds to maintain the alliance that enables them to govern the country. “It’s a shared belief and goals," she says, adding "I believe they will stay intact because they all understand what’s at stake.”
But writing a constitution may not be the top priority for a number of Iraqis. The International Republican Institute recently released a survey that says the number one demand Iraqis have is a reliable nationwide electrical system. Solving the country’s serious unemployment problem and economic development came in second. Rebuilding the national health care system to at least pre-war standards was third. Writing a constitution was ninth.
As parliament speaker Hajim al-Hassani sees it, everyone involved in the new government is under pressure to solve Iraq’s day-to-day problems or face the voters' wrath when a permanent government is eventually elected. “We have to cooperate with each other until we get to the next stage when we’re going to have another election.” Mr. al-Hassani says the political makeup of the permanent government will largely depend on the results he and others in the interim administration achieve.
For most observers, the political transformation of Iraq in the past year is astonishing. Eight decades of monarchy and then one-party dictatorship have been replaced with a vibrant multi-party environment. Most observers say the challenge for all of the country’s new leaders is to use their power constructively to ensure what Iraqis and the world community hope will be a democratic future for a long-troubled nation.