Since last week, Jalal Talabani both the president of Iraq and a key Kurdish nationalist leader has been maneuvering to force the Shi'ite bloc that won the most seats in December's parliamentary election to withdraw its nomination of incumbent Ibrahim al-Jaafari as prime minister. The main Kurdish grievance with Jaafari appears to be his resistance to their attempts to incorporate the northern oil city of Kirkuk into their de facto autonomous mini-state; the last straw was a recent visit by Jaafari to Ankara to discuss Iraqi affairs with Turkey, which has made clear that it regards anything resembling Kurdish sovereignty on its border as intolerable. It has vowed to support Iraq's Turkmen minority, concentrated in Kirkuk, in resisting attempts to incorporate the city into Kurdistan.
Talabani had the support of the two major Sunni parties, as well as the smaller secular alliance for his demand, but it was flatly rejected across the board by Shi'ite politicians. His subsequent attempt to force the Shi'ites' hand by calling the legislature into session this coming Sunday which would have begun a 60-day countdown to decide on the next prime minister and his cabinet was also blocked. In this case it was the Shi'ite politician most likely to replace Jaafari as the nominee, Vice President Adel Abdul Mahdi, who put Shi'ite unity above his own partisan interests. On Tuesday, Jaafari refused to entertain any notion of stepping aside from his candidacy, declaring that "no one can make bargains with me by enlarging personal disagreements."
Jaafari, widely disliked outside of his immediate support base, won the nomination of the Shi'ite alliance by only one vote, thanks to the intervention of radical cleric Moqtada Sadr, who threw his 32 votes (among the 128 seats held by the Shi'ite alliance) behind the incumbent. Jaafari's rival in that contest was none other than Abdel Mahdi, a candidate preferred by the U.S. and a top official of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, with which Sadr has been engaged in a long-running battle for Shi'ite political supremacy.
The situation is complicated by the fact that all of Jaafari's detractors are motivated by different agendas and some of them at odds with one another. The Sunnis dismiss Jaafari as too sectarian and unwilling to make concessions to accommodate their interests; most recently he was fiercely denounced for his government's failure to protect Sunnis from a wave of a violent retribution for the bombing of a Shi'ite shrine two weeks ago. The U.S., for its part, has found Jaafari to be insufficiently responsive to Washington's concerns and demands, and his historic ties with Iran haven't helped the relationship. Despite their mutual mistrust of Jaafari, the Kurds and the Sunnis, who have their own strong constituency in Kirkuk and other areas claimed by the Kurds, don't see eye to eye on the oil-rich city's status.
Whether Jaafari is elected or replaced, however, the multiple schisms that have plagued the political process appear to be widening, and the next prime minister is bound to be surrounded by powerful enemies looking for him to fail. In other words, at a time when Iraq needs strong leadership more than ever, the next Iraqi government may be even weaker than the current one.