Beleaguered Premier Warns U.S. to Stop
Interfering in Iraq's Politics
By EDWARD WONG
BAGHDAD, Iraq, March 29 — Facing growing pressure from the Bush administration to step down, Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari of Iraq vigorously asserted his right to stay in office on Wednesday and warned the Americans against interfering in the country's political process.
Mr. Jaafari also defended his recent political alliance with the radical Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr, now the prime minister's most powerful backer, saying in an interview that Mr. Sadr and his militia, now thousands strong, are a fact of life in Iraq and need to be accepted into mainstream politics.
Mr. Jaafari said he would work to fold the country's myriad militias into the official security forces and ensure that recruits and top security ministers abandoned their ethnic or sectarian loyalties.
The Iraqi government's tolerance of militias has emerged as the greatest source of contention between American officials and Shiite leaders like Mr. Jaafari, with the American ambassador contending in the past week that militias are killing more people than the Sunni Arab-led insurgency. Dozens of bodies, garroted or with gunshots to the head, turn up almost daily in Baghdad, fueling sectarian tensions that are pushing Iraq closer to full-scale civil war.
The prime minister made his remarks in an hourlong interview at his home, a Saddam Hussein-era palace with an artificial lake at the heart of the fortified Green Zone. He spoke in a languorous manner, relaxing in a black pinstripe suit in a dim ground-floor office lined with Arabic books like the multivolume "World of Civilizations."
"There was a stand from both the American government and President Bush to promote a democratic policy and protect its interests," he said, sipping from a cup of boiled water mixed with saffron. "But now there's concern among the Iraqi people that the democratic process is being threatened."
"The source of this is that some American figures have made statements that interfere with the results of the democratic process," he added. "These reservations began when the biggest bloc in Parliament chose its candidate for prime minister."
Mr. Jaafari is at the center of the deadlock in the talks over forming a new government, with the main Kurdish, Sunni Arab and secular blocs in the 275-member Parliament staunchly opposing the Shiite bloc's nomination of Mr. Jaafari for prime minister.
Senior Shiite politicians said Tuesday that the American ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad, had weighed in over the weekend, telling the leader of the Shiite bloc that President Bush did not want Mr. Jaafari as prime minister. That was the first time the Americans had openly expressed a preference for the post, the politicians said, and it showed the Bush administration's acute impatience with the political logjam.
Relations between Shiite leaders and the Americans have been fraying for months and reached a crisis point after a bloody assault on a Shiite mosque compound Sunday night by American and Iraqi forces.
Mr. Jaafari said in the interview that Ambassador Khalilzad had visited him on Wednesday morning but did not indicate that he should abandon his job.
American reactions to the political process can be seen as either supporting or interfering in Iraqi decisions, said Mr. Jaafari, the leader of the Islamic Dawa Party and a former exile. "When it takes the form of interference, it makes the Iraqi people worried," he said. "For that reason, the Iraqi people want to ensure that these reactions stay in a positive frame and do not cross over into interference that damages the results of the democratic process."
According to the Constitution, the largest bloc in Parliament, in this case the religious Shiites, has the right to nominate a prime minister. Mr. Jaafari won that nomination in a secret ballot last month among the blocs' 130 Shiite members of Parliament. But his victory was a narrow one: he won by only one vote after getting the support of Mr. Sadr, who controls 32 seats.
That alliance has raised concern among the Americans that Mr. Jaafari will do little to rein in Mr. Sadr, who led two fierce rebellions against the American military in 2004. Mr. Sadr's militia, the Mahdi Army, rampaged in Baghdad after the Feb. 22 bombing of a revered Shiite shrine in Samarra and after a series of car bomb explosions on March 12 in Baghdad's Sadr City neighborhood. The violence left hundreds dead and Sunni mosques burnt to the ground.
After the secret ballot last month, Sadr politicians said Mr. Jaafari had agreed to meet all their demands in exchange for their votes. Mr. Sadr has been pushing for control of service ministries like health, transportation and electricity.
Mr. Jaafari did not say in the interview what deals he had made, but he insisted that engagement with the cleric's movement was needed for the stability of Iraq. He said he had disagreed with L. Paul Bremer III, the former American proconsul, when Mr. Bremer barred Mr. Sadr and some Sunni Arab groups from the Iraqi Governing Council in 2003.
"The delay in getting them to join led to the situation of them becoming violent elements," he said.
"I look at them as part of Iraq's de facto reality, whether some of the individual people are negative or positive," he said.
Mr. Jaafari used similar language when laying out his policy toward militias: that inclusion rather than isolation was the proper strategy.
The Iraqi government will try "to meld them, take them, take their names and make them join the army and police forces."
"And they will respect the army or police rather than the militias."
Recruiting militia members into the Iraqi security forces has not been a problem under the Jaafari government. The issue has been getting those fighters to act as impartial defenders of the state rather than as political partisans. The police forces are stocked with members of the Mahdi Army and the Badr Organization, an Iranian-trained militia, who still exhibit obvious loyalties to their political party leaders.
Police officers have performed poorly when ordered to contain militia violence, and they even cruise around in some cities with images of Mr. Sadr or other religious politicians on their squad cars.
There is growing evidence of uniformed death squads operating out of the Shiite-run Interior Ministry, and Ambassador Khalilzad has been lobbying the Iraqis to place more neutral figures in charge of the Interior and Defense Ministries in the next government. That has caused friction with Shiite leaders, and some have even accused the ambassador of implicitly backing the Sunni Arab-led insurgency.
But Mr. Jaafari said he supported the Americans' goal.
"We insist that the ministers in the next cabinet, especially the ministers of defense and the interior, shouldn't be connected to any militias, and they should be nonsectarian," he said. "They should be experienced in security work. They should keep the institutions as security institutions, not as political institutions. They should work for the central government."
In the first two years of the war, Mr. Jaafari emerged as one of the most popular politicians in Iraq, especially compared with other exiles like Ahmad Chalabi, the former Pentagon favorite. A doctor by training and well-versed in the Koran, Mr. Jaafari comes from a prominent family in Karbala, the Shiite holy city. But since taking power last spring, Mr. Jaafari has come under widespread criticism for failing to stamp out the insurgency and promoting hard-line pro-Shiite policies.
* Copyright 2006The New York Times Company