No Deal

Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari was in an expansive mood as he sat down for an interview with NEWSWEEK earlier today. Aides crowded into the library of his home with him, beaming with the news that after two-and-a-half months of wrangling, today they would finally be announcing a government of national unity. The Shia who won the National Assembly election January 30, and the Kurds who won the second largest bloc of seats, had cut a deal that would bring Sunnis into the government despite their election day boycott. "We as Shias have suffered from exclusion and we don't want anyone else to go through this," said Jafari. "We are keen to be welcoming, especially for the Sunnis, and this you will see reflected in the ministries of the new government." The deal on the cabinet would be announced later in the day, and on Sunday formally unveiled in detail before the National Assembly. That was at 11.30 a.m.

"Wishful thinking," scoffed Sheikh Ghazi al Yawer, vice-president of the new Iraqi government, at 6 p.m. Yawer is one of the three members of the Iraqi presidency--which consists of a president and two vice presidents--who must unanimously endorse the cabinet before it can be presented to the assembly for ratification. "I won't submit it unless I get assurances they won't take us to the cleaners," Yawer said in an interview. Yawer, a Sunni who had been president in the previous, U.S. and U.N.-crafted interim government, was also on the committee that tried to find independent Sunnis to take the ministries that were being offered to them. "The number of positions for Sunni Arabs is very much less" than expected, he said. "We agreed on six, they've offered four." Jafari's aides say they did offer six to Sunnis, compared to nine ministries for Kurds and 16 for Shias. But it turned out, according to the Sunnis, that the Shia leadership was counting a Turkomen position and a Christian position among the six. The Kurds and Shia blamed one another for not being willing to concede more of their own seats, but whoever was to blame, once again, it was no deal.

In the meantime the caretaker government of outgoing prime minister Iyad Allawi has remained in office. After a long post-election lull in the fighting, with the number of insurgent attacks dropping to a fraction of what they had been, the violence picked up again this week-- underscoring how badly the country needs a government. Just the night before Jafari spoke to NEWSWEEK, a suicide car bomber targeted a convoy taking caretaker prime minister Iyad Allawi home from a late night meeting with Jafari. One policeman was killed, but Allawi escaped unhurt. Today, a commercial helicopter was shot down by missile fire north of Baghdad, killing 11 people, including six American contractors. " [The new leaders] lost three months since the elections," Allawi said in an interview. "[Shiite leader Ayatollah Ali] Sistani should issue a fatwa saying get your act together." Already many officials in Allawi's government have left the country; Allawi even departed for a midwar vacation at one point. Others are looking for new jobs, and coasting in their current ones. "It's a dangerous game. This caretaker government must come to an end," said Yawer. "This is a joke."

The overall deal the Shias and Kurds worked out was this. The Shia-dominated United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) got the most important position of prime minister, who will run things; a Sunni was given speaker of the National Assembly, and the three-person presidency had a Kurd as president, Jalal Talabani, and a Shia and a Sunni vice-president. Then today's deal called for apportioning the 31 ministerial positions roughly along population lines, which would give Kurds and Sunnis about the same number of positions. The problem is that the Sunnis had no bargaining power in the assembly, which will have to ratify the cabinet, and relied on the largesse of the winners. But when it came to putting ministries where their mouths were, the winners weren't quite so generous. Kurdish politicians said they'd be willing to give up another ministry to the Sunnis, but felt the more numerous Shia should give up two ministries. But when Jafari went to the UIA with that, he had to contend with a diverse coalition of religious and secular parties, as well as independents, who all wanted a division of the spoils too.

Jafari has had a near-impossible job. "I really feel for the guy," Yawer said. "Every time we feel we are finished, there are new demands." Even earlier today, when Jafari thought he had a deal, many of the actual details remained to be worked out--critical details too, like exactly which Sunni would get what ministry, and whether that ministry would be one of the important ones, or just a service ministry such as electricity, or a minor one like human rights. So the plan had been to announce the outlines of the government, and keep fighting over the names until Sunday. "If they gave us five ministries, and deputy prime minister, I would shake hands today," Yawer said. He still hopes that will happen before the week is out.

The new government is only meant to last long enough to draft a constitution, submit it to a referendum, and then hold elections again by the end of the year. Jafari has a month to form a cabinet; as it's going now, it looks like he may only just make that May 7 deadline. But if it's this hard to form a temporary government, that hardly bodes well for the even more difficult compromises ahead if Iraq's ethnic and sectarian groupings are to write a new constitution in less than three months.