Published on Monday, April 11, 2005 by the Sydney Morning Herald
Saddam May Yet Be the Ultimate Survivor
by Paul McGeough
Now even Saddam Hussein might survive to see the new Iraq - if and when that benighted country emerges from a post-invasion gloom that has just entered its third year.
An idea being floated in Baghdad is that if Saddam's punishment was jail for life, rather than the execution he is widely assumed to face, the Sunni minority who enjoyed power and prosperity while he controlled Iraq might save face and break with the insurgents.
It comes at the same time as the newly named president of Iraq, Jalal Talabani, renewed last year's failed idea of an amnesty to drive a wedge into the insurgency. It didn't work when the outgoing interim prime minister, Iyad Allawi, suggested it, and it is not quite clear why Talabani believes it will work.
There are two ways to look at the appointment of Talabani, a Kurd at the top of mainly Arab Iraq. On the one hand, a remarkable exercise in democratic sharing; on the other, it tells us what the Arab majority, and the Shiites especially, think of the mostly ceremonial office of president in the new Iraq.
Talabani is as colorful as he is courageous, but we know him more for his pragmatism than for any innate sense of democracy. And like the rest of the leadership that is emerging in the wake of the January 30 elections, it remains difficult for the outside world to gauge where he - and they - will take the country.
Talabani's comments have been widely reported in the past week. But what he says counts for little - his is a ceremonial position and his ability to direct events is as limited as that of, say, the governor-general in Australia.
But he gave a good indication of the tension in Baghdad when he "forgot" to mention in his inaugural address last week the appointment of Ibrahim Jaafari, the leader of Iraq's oldest Shiite Muslim party, to the vastly more powerful office of prime minister.
In a culture that often is more preoccupied with the manner in which a deal is executed than the outcome of the deal itself, it is hard to see Talabani's behavior as anything other than a calculated insult to his new leader.
Even more indicative of the tensions is the time the whole process has taken - 10 weeks! The Shiite-Sunni-Kurdish arm-wrestling is an understandable scramble for power in a US-imposed scheme that requires each minister to have two deputies, in order to have a Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish voice in every ministry.
But it also is a measure of the deep conflict between the agendas of the three groups.
It could all be posturing, but the Kurds say there is no way they will accept Shiite demands that sharia canons be incorporated into the basic law of Iraq; and the Shiites are saying there is no way they will accommodate Kurdish demands for greater autonomy and for the inclusion of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk in the northern region for which they demand autonomy.
The new government will be made up of the three biggest vote winners - a coalition of religious Shiite parties headed by Jaafari, the Kurds and a secular Shiite grouping led by the outgoing Allawi.
Perhaps they can make it all work. But many Iraqis feel frustrated and betrayed that it took the leadership so long to get this far after the people had turned out so bravely to vote on January 30. And some observers are anxious that the absence of common ground in the various agendas could lead to government by inertia.
We've already seen what happens in a vacuum in liberated Iraq - the likes of Moqtada al-Sadr, the firebrand young Shiite cleric, twice sent his militia into the streets of the south, forcing the US to fight on a second front at the same time as it confronted a Sunni-backed insurgency in the north and the west of the country.
Tens of thousands of Sadr's supporters - some reports say up to 300,000 - were back on Baghdad's streets at the weekend protesting against the US. This time they left their guns at home. But amid so much frustration, agenda logjams and an insurgency-driven standard of living that still makes life a misery of ordinary Iraqis, there is a risk that Sadr's militia and those of the other key players can rearm at any time.
Copyright © 2005. The Sydney Morning Herald.