Global Policy Forum

Top Iraqi Leaders


By Edward Wong

New York Times
March 20, 2006

Iraqi officials announced Sunday that they had agreed to form a council of the country's top politicians to make policy on security and economic issues in the new government. The council, which will include the prime minister and president, is an attempt to include all the country's major factions in decision making at a time of rising sectarian tensions.

The Iraqi Constitution approved by voters last fall does not have language supporting the creation of such a council. The 19-member body will essentially concentrate power in the hands of the country's political party leaders, and supersede the cabinet and Parliament in making broad decisions. The move is a step forward in the snail-paced negotiations over the formation of a full, four-year government. Debate over creating the so-called national security council, and what powers it would wield, had contributed to the deadlock in the talks.

The main Shiite political bloc, which is expected to hold the most executive power in the new government, had opposed formation of the council, while the Kurds, Sunni Arabs, secular politicians and the Americans had pushed for it. Many Shiite leaders viewed the idea of the council, first proposed by Massoud Barzani, the president of Iraqi Kurdistan, as an attempt to hamstring the prime minister, expected to be a Shiite, and check the power of the main Shiite bloc, known as the United Iraqi Alliance.

But on Sunday, after five hours of negotiations at President Jalal Talabani's guest villa here, the Shiites agreed to the council's formation. Because of the way the council will be set up, the Shiites, who constitute the largest political bloc in Parliament, will have an effective veto over council decisions. Furthermore, the prime minister or president will be able to override any decisions they disagree with if the decisions conflict with the executives' constitutional authority, Iraqi officials said. Otherwise, the council's actions will be considered binding.

"It's a good thing," said Adnan Pachachi, the temporary speaker of Parliament and a secular politician. "It's a safety valve in a way. Decisions will be taken in which all major political parties will be part of. No one will accuse the prime minister of making decisions on his own." The council is expected to make policy on security issues, like how to build up and deploy the Iraqi Army and the police, how to disarm the country's many militias and what to do about insurgent territories like Anbar Province in western Iraq, Iraqi officials said. The council will also address economic matters, including oil revenue and the budget. Any decisions that require legislation will be put before Parliament, Mr. Pachachi said. But the Parliament will probably support any decisions made by the council because all the leaders of the major parliamentary blocs will sit on the council, he added.

The council's decisions require a two-thirds vote of its 19 members. The president, prime minister, speaker of Parliament and the leader of any autonomous region (only Iraqi Kurdistan, for now) get seats on the council. The rest will be given to other party leaders. Over all, the seats will be distributed in proportion to the percentage of Parliament controlled by each major bloc.

According to that system, the main Shiite religious bloc will get nine seats, the Kurds four, the main Sunni Arab religious bloc three, the secular bloc two and a smaller Sunni Arab bloc one, Mr. Pachachi said. The two-thirds vote requirement effectively gives the Shiite members final say over any decision, as long as they remain united. The council will operate parallel to the cabinet but will have greater responsibility for broad policy decisions. The cabinet will run the day-to-day affairs of the government ministries. Part of the motivation for creating the council is a desire to check the power of the ministers, especially those in charge of security.

Control of the Interior and Defense Ministries has been one of the most hotly debated issues in the talks to form a government. Each political bloc suspects the others of sectarian motives in trying to control the armed forces. With heightened sectarian tensions and talk of impending civil war on the rise, whoever controls the army and the police would have a guaranteed arms supply. Besides the prime minister and president, who have yet to be chosen, the politicians expected to sit on the national security council include Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, leader of the Shiite bloc; Tarik al-Hashimi, leader of the main Sunni Arab bloc; Saleh al-Mutlak, leader of the smaller Sunni Arab bloc; Ayad Allawi, the former prime minister and a secularist; and Mr. Barzani, the president of Iraqi Kurdistan.

"It's true that there's no explicit mention of it in the Constitution," Mr. Hashimi said at a news conference at Mr. Talabani's villa. "We think that the salvation of Iraq for the time being lies in showing a lot of flexibility in establishing new political bodies that include all the components of the Iraqi people."

The political leaders must now tackle other deeply contentious issues in the talks to form a government. At the top of the list is the Shiite nomination of Ibrahim al-Jaafari, the current prime minister, to retain that post. The other blocs oppose Mr. Jaafari's nomination, and have demanded that the Shiites present a new candidate. Mr. Jaafari has come under sharp criticism for failing to quell the violence and for the huge shortcomings in postwar reconstruction.

The political jockeying took place as Mr. Allawi, the former prime minister, told the BBC News on Sunday that the country was already mired in civil war. "It is unfortunate that we are in civil war," he said. "We are losing each day, as an average, 50 to 60 people throughout the country, if not more. If this is not civil war, then God knows what civil war is."

At least 15 bodies, all of them shot, were found across Baghdad on Sunday, police and hospital officials said. More than 200 bodies have been discovered in nearly two weeks, virtually all believed to be victims of sectarian violence. A homemade bomb killed a police commando in Baghdad on Sunday. In Kirkuk, a cluster bomb left from the American invasion of 2003 exploded, killing a shepherd and a 6-year-old boy, said Lt. Col. Yadgar Abdullah of the Kirkuk police department. The police found two Iraqi soldiers shot dead in Hawija, west of Kirkuk. Officials in Basra said two employees of the South Oil Company were shot to death on Saturday night. Both were members of the Iraqi Islamic Party, a conservative Sunni Arab group, and had been handcuffed.

An Iraqi employee of the New York Times contributed reporting from Kirkuk for this article.

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