Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Kurd-Shia fallout/Iran kills 8 British troops


15 Shia Iraqis killed following islamic fast of Ramadan. Posted by Picasa

BAGHDAD, Oct 5 (Reuters) - A deepening feud between Iraq's Kurdish president and the Shi'ite prime minister has cast doubt on whether their alliance, forged out of convenience nine months ago, will survive beyond elections in December.

If it breaks apart, as some observers expect, it could see a fundamental realignment of Iraq's political landscape, which has been dominated by pro-Iranian Islamist Shi'ites and separatist-minded, secular Kurds since elections in January.

The dispute between President Jalal Talabani and Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari broke into the open last week after one of Talabani's spokesmen said Jaafari should be sacked because he was monopolising power and not sticking to agreements.

Jaafari, a devout Shi'ite, responded by saying he was too busy running the country to discuss the slight with Talabani.

The two, who have vastly different characters and visions for Iraq, have long had policy differences, especially over what should be done about Kirkuk, a city sitting on huge oil reserves that is claimed by Kurds, ethnic Turkmen and Arabs, many of whom are Shi'ites transplanted from the south by Saddam Hussein.

The latest dispute, coming a little over two months before new elections, appears to mark a more substantive departure, however, as they weigh up what sort of allegiances will leave them with the most power after December's vote.

"The significance of Talabani's break with Jaafari is actually more serious than mere parliamentary politics," Juan Cole, a professor of history at the University of Michigan, said on his website (www.juancole.com) earlier this week.

"The always troubled and uneasy Shi'ite-Kurdish alliance was the I-beam that kept the house of Iraq standing. Talabani has just taken a blow torch to the I-beam, and it is not clear whether there is anything to keep the roof from collapsing now."

That is a dramatic way of looking at it, but it is clear the agreement that brought the parties together in January, when the Shi'ites needed Kurdish support to secure a strong enough majority in parliament to form a government, is now fragile.

UNCERTAIN ALLIANCES

The key to what happens next is the Shi'ite coalition that Jaafari heads, the United Iraqi Alliance, formed under the direction of Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's foremost Shi'ite cleric, in the run-up to January's polls.

The alliance brings together more than a dozen groups but is principally made up of various factions of Dawa, which is Jaafari's party, and the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), formed in Iranian exile and also Islamist.

While the alliance did well in January's election, winning almost half the votes, Sistani, who rarely speaks in public, is said by some followers to be dissatisfied with its performance in office, amid allegations of corruption and infighting, and it is not certain that he will give his blessing to the coalition again come December.

Since Sistani's opinion holds sway with Iraq's 60-percent Shi'ite majority, withholding his approval could be key.

"The United Iraqi Alliance is unwieldy," said Toby Dodge, an Iraq expert at Queen Mary College at the University of London.

"Sistani put his weight behind it in January, but it would be hard for him to do that again in December.

"If Sistani pulls in his horns, which one would think he would, and doesn't back the alliance, the alliance will fracture ... and the people who are going to hurt are Dawa and SCIRI."

That could leave several political groups, including that led by rebel Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, vying for the Shi'ite religious vote, splitting the power of each party.

At the same time it would open the way for secular Shi'ites, such as the party led by former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, to draw moderates away from the United Iraqi Alliance.

Allawi is already talking about building a party that draws support from moderates across the spectrum -- Shi'ites, Sunnis, Christians and others. He could also prove a natural ally for Talabani and the Kurds, who favour secular politics.

"You have a very open race for this next election," said Dodge. "It could see a fundamental realignment in the political landscape, but it depends on Sistani."

At the same time, there are pragmatic reasons why the Kurds and religious Shi'ites may stay together for now: they largely wrote a new constitution, securing Kurdish autonomy in the north and similar rights to Shi'ites in the oil-rich south.

However, that constitution will be voted on at a referendum on Oct 15. If it is approved, as expected, then the Kurds and religious Shi'ites will have got what they wanted -- and may not need each other any more.

Other Iraq news today:

Britain has accused Iran of responsibility for explosions which have caused the deaths of all eight UK soldiers killed in Iraq this year.

Free Kurdistan-'a fresh idea'- from the National review

Iraq reverses changes to referendum-Due to Un/Us/Sunni arab discontent

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