March 28, 2006
BAGHDAD, Iraq - U.S. officials sent a message this week to Iraq's senior religious cleric asking that he help end the impasse over forming a new Iraqi government and strongly implying that the prime minister, Ibrahim al-Jafaari, should withdraw his candidacy for re-election, according to American officials.
The unusual decision by the White House to reach out to Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani suggested how eager the Bush administration is to jump-start negotiations that have failed to produce Iraq's first permanent postwar government more than three months after national elections.
But by contacting the revered Shiite Muslim leader, the administration risks further angering Iraqi leaders, who already complain that the United States is interfering too much with the process.
During a news conference Tuesday, Salim al-Maliki, the minister of transportation and a member of the dominant United Iraqi Alliance, said al-Jaafari was still the slate's candidate.
"We do not accept interference by the United States or any other foreign body because it is an internal decision of United Iraqi Alliance," al-Maliki said.
In Washington, two officials confirmed that the United States had passed a message through a third party to the reclusive al-Sistani, Iraq's top cleric and, in some ways, its ultimate political arbiter.
It wasn't known whether al-Jafaari was mentioned by name. But the clear message was that the prime minister's bid to keep his job was creating an impasse and the way to end it was for him to withdraw, one official said.
The gist of the message was "we need to find a way to address this process," an administration official in Washington said. "We need to find a way out of the impasse."
He spoke on condition of anonymity because the White House and State Department weren't publicly acknowledging the move.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan denied reports in Baghdad that President Bush had sent a letter to leading Shiite politician Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, a statement that, while true, was incomplete.
"What we are doing is encouraging the Iraqi leaders to move forward on a government of national unity, based on strong leadership. It is up to the Iraqi people to decide who the prime minister is," McClellan said. "I know of no letter."
It was unclear precisely how the message meant for al-Sistani was sent, but Haithem al-Husseini, a spokesman for al-Hakim, confirmed that the leader of the Shiite alliance bloc had received a message from the Bush administration. He wouldn't say whether al-Hakim or al-Sistani was the intended recipient.
Al-Sistani consistently has refused to meet with U.S. envoys.
Al-Hakim visited al-Sistani at his home in Najaf on Tuesday. Before a throng of supporters, al-Hakim promised that the Iraqi leadership would move quickly to form a government. When he mentioned a raid by U.S. and Iraqi forces that some charge occurred in a mosque, the crowds chanted: "No, no America."
The administration's outreach to al-Sistani underscored how much Bush has at stake in ending Iraq's political stalemate, which has gone on for months as violence continues.
"What it reflects - we are, we're deeper into this process," the administration official said.
Judith Yaphe, a Persian Gulf expert at the National Defense University in Washington, called the reported attempts to pressure al-Jafaari to resign "heavy-handed."
"They have to know that Sistani does not want to be seen as interfering in the political process," she said. "You're guaranteed to get the result that you don't want."
Elizabeth Colton, a U.S. Embassy spokeswoman, declined to comment about the message. American officials have said the Iraqis are leading the formation of the government and that the United States is supporting them.
"This is an issue that Iraqis must determine, just like in other democratic systems," Colton said.
Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, a multinational forces spokesman, said last week that the absence of a government was contributing to the surge of religious and ethnic violence.
On Tuesday, 24 people were kidnapped and more than 30 bodies were discovered throughout Baghdad, many of which had been tortured in apparent sectarian violence.
This week, there's been a growing chorus of complaints from Shiite politicians that the Bush administration doesn't want al-Jaafari as the next prime minister. They have charged that American officials are trying to usurp their election results, despite promising to bring democracy to Iraq.
Earlier this year, the United Iraqi Alliance, the largest Shiite slate, chose al-Jaafari to be its nominee for the top post in the permanent government. That virtually assured that he'd win, since the slate won nearly a majority of seats in the new parliament.
But widespread objections to al-Jaafari surfaced immediately from some, who charge that the Iranian-backed leader has been ineffective and divisive during the interim period. Opponents argued that the country's first democratically elected government since the fall of Saddam Hussein should have a more representative leader, particularly as religious and ethnic tensions worsen.
Adnan Ali, a top al-Jaafari adviser, said, "We have not received anything official objecting to Jaafari," adding that al-Jaafari has no intention of stepping aside.
Although a religious figure, al-Sistani has rescued the political process in the past, when he pushed for elections and the writing of the constitution, for example. But his aides have said he doesn't want to be seen as a politician. It's unclear how he'll respond to this outreach by U.S. officials.
Strobel reported from Washington. Knight Ridder Newspapers special correspondent Zaineb Obeid contributed to this report from Baghdad.