Messy Business of Democracy


Los Angeles Times

February 23, 2005

The Shiite ticket's selection of Ibrahim Jafari as its nominee for prime minister of Iraq spares the nation the contempt of its neighbors and the antipathy of the U.S. government. The maneuverings that resulted in Jafari's win over Ahmad Chalabi, who has been convicted of bank embezzlement and accused of spying for Iran, also showed that Iraqis are mastering the art of the backroom deal, a common if unsavory hallmark of democracy.

Jafari, a physician, is head of the Islamist Dawa Party, a major component in the alliance of Shiites that won 48% of the vote in the historic Jan. 30 election for a transitional national assembly. The assembly is supposed to pick a president and two vice presidents. That trio is charged with picking the prime minister and is expected to rubber-stamp the selection of Jafari, although other challengers may appear.

The United States stayed out of the Jafari-Chalabi contest, at least publicly. But there was no doubt about Washington's dislike for Chalabi, who for years proclaimed that Saddam Hussein's Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. In the disastrous aftermath of the invasion, the U.S. accused Chalabi of passing secret information to Iran. He denied it, as he denied embezzling $70 million from the Petra Bank of Jordan, which he headed until its bankruptcy in 1989. He was convicted in absentia of the theft and sentenced to 22 years in prison. On Tuesday, he said he was ending his bid for prime minister.

If Jafari becomes prime minister, his main challenge will be bringing Sunnis, most of whom boycotted the election, into the government. He also must depend on the 150,000 U.S. troops in the country to quell the Sunni-led violence that has flared again since the election. Jafari, who opposes permanent U.S. bases in Iraq, will have to lead the campaign to recruit more Iraqis for security forces and get them trained as quickly as possible. The newly elected assembly members still have much horse-trading ahead, deciding who gets the mostly ceremonial post of president and who gets what posts in the cabinet. Democracy is often untidy, and there's no reason to expect smooth sailing in a country that was ruled by a dictator for so many years. The best course for Washington is to stay as far away as possible from the bargaining and let Iraqis make the choices themselves, as they did in the elections.