BAGHDAD — Two years ago, as the U.S. planned to march into Baghdad, many in the Bush administration had a vision for Iraq's first freely elected government in decades. It would be a pro-U.S. regime that would support American military bases, embrace U.S. businesses and serve as a model for democracy in the region.
Now as Ibrahim Jafari seems certain to become Iraq's new prime minister, the U.S. faces the prospect of dealing with a government whose views may be closer to Tehran's than to Washington's. And U.S. officials are left wondering how many of their assumptions will prove true.
The soft-spoken physician who spent nine years as an exile in Iran has lately taken pains to appear as a moderate on the issue of religion in government. He and other members of his United Iraqi Alliance slate have stressed that they have differences with the Iranian theocratic model and that Iraqis need a government that will represent all groups.
"Iraq is actually made of various populations from all nationalities, sects and religions," Jafari said during a recent interview with the Los Angeles Times in the capital. "Nobody can rule Iraq unless he would walk alongside all Iraqis and represent all the Iraqi people."
But some Iraqis and foreign observers note that Jafari heads Iraq's oldest Islamist party, and they worry he will seek to impose a more religious government than he lets on. They note that he has been lukewarm to the U.S. presence in Iraq and has said he would like to see U.S. troops withdraw once Iraqi forces are trained.
They also recall that the late Iranian leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini initially disavowed political motives after an Islamic revolution overthrew the shah of Iran in 1979. "All the experts got it wrong in Iran too," said a senior U.S. diplomat here with considerable experience in the region.
Before long, Khomeini was espousing the doctrine of velayat-e-faqih, or rule of religious jurists. The Islamic state has since been a U.S. nemesis and was named three years ago in President Bush's so-called axis of evil.
The emergence of that doctrine in Iraq would be painful for Washington, especially since the U.S.-led war has cost more than 1,400 American lives and hundreds of billions of dollars.
U.S. officials said Tuesday that they would work with whoever was elected, although they would have preferred interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi or Adel Abdul Mehdi, the interim government's finance minister.
One senior administration official declined to say how U.S. officials viewed Jafari. "We have a studied neutrality on that," he said.
But officials have cause for concern. Although Jafari has said publicly that he supports human rights and an inclusive government, he also wants religion to play a key role in the country's affairs. Jafari was one of the Shiite Muslim leaders who walked out during deliberations on Iraq's transitional law because he feared that Islam would not be made the sole source of law.
Juan Cole, an expert on Iraq at the University of Michigan, said Jafari might not suit the Americans as well as Allawi would have, but he was not expected to be hostile.
"He'll get along with them," Cole said.
Still, some here worry that Shiite clerics could pressure Jafari. The Khomeini-like image of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the Iranian-born spiritual leader of Iraq's Shiites, was ubiquitous on campaign posters before the Jan. 30 election for the transitional national assembly. Sistani's tacit endorsement was considered key to the success of Jafari's slate.
The assurances by Jafari and other slate leaders of moderation and independence from Iran have failed to mollify fears that Tehran could wield significant influence in the new government. The slate's two major Shiite parties — Jafari's Dawa Party and the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq — are seen by some Iraqis as Iranian fronts. U.S. officials are convinced that both parties receive financial aid from Iran.
Defense Minister Hazem Sha laan, a secular Shiite, derided the slate as "an Iranian list."
Jafari and other Shiite leaders have noted the Arab character of their slate and say they resent the second-class treatment of Arabs in Iran, which has a Persian majority.
U.S. officials and others here hope that the Shiites' power will be checked by Iraq's ethnic Kurds, who received the second-largest number of votes in the election. The Kurds, by most accounts, would oppose any Shiite efforts to turn the country toward religious rule.
The Kurds control a bloc of 75 seats in the 275-seat transitional legislature, which will ensure their role as "kingmakers," as one Western official put it. The Shiite slate won 140 seats, well short of the two-thirds needed to win key votes. And that slate, which includes a cross-section of political and religious groups, could fracture, experts warn. Still, there is little question that the Shiite Islamists are in the strongest position as Iraq lurches toward some form of representative democracy.
Shiite leaders have indicated that they plan to kick out the 150,000 U.S. troops when they are no longer needed to fight the mainly Sunni Arab insurgents.
"When there is a self-sufficiency regarding security, then the existence of foreign forces in Iraq, be they in the form of individual troops or in the form of military bases, will not be justified," Jafari said.
That message may hearten some U.S. lawmakers who favor a pullout once Iraqi forces are able to contain the insurgency, a process that could take years. But Jafari's position would seem to rule out the hope that a stable Iraq would voluntarily host U.S. bases, providing an alternative to Saudi Arabia and other countries in the region.
Western diplomats say the major challenge facing Jafari and the new government is holding the country together.
"In the past," noted another senior Western diplomat, "the Shiite community here has demonstrated an admirable level of self-restraint and a recognition that there are extremists here that want nothing more than to trigger … sectarian strife, and even a civil war."
McDonnell reported from Baghdad and Richter from Washington.
Copyright 2005 Los Angeles Times