- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, one of America’s closest allies in the country, has rebuffed the personal request of President Obama and Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. to relinquish his post as Iraqis form a new government in Baghdad.

Iraqi leaders announced Thursday a new government in which Mr. Talabani remains president, Nouri al-Maliki remains prime minister and Iyad Allawi’s Iraqiya party, which won the most votes in March’s election, controls the speakership of Parliament and the presidency of the National Security Council.

Mr. al-Maliki and his top rival Mr. Allawi sat next to each other in the parliament chamber in an apparent sign of unity after a contentious, eight-month political fight over the formation of the government, the Associated Press reported. But that didn’t last long, as he later joined a walkout of the Iraqiya members in protest.

A parliament vote on the government could still take weeks, but the session Thursday paved the way with the first formal steps, starting with the naming of a parliament speaker — Osama al-Nujaifi, a Sunni Arab, AP reported.

Mr. Allawi is a Shi’ia Arab, though his party has attracted support from former Baathists and Sunni Arabs.

The lawmakers had demanded that before parliament vote on the president, it vote first to formally dissolve decisions by a De-Baathification program purging former members of Saddam Hussein’s ruling party which had barred three of their members from taking part in government positions, the AP reported. That demand was rejected, and the Iraqiya members left. The parliament session was able to continue without them.

Last Saturday, Mr. Obama phoned Mr. Talabani and asked him to give up the seat he has held since 2005 so that Mr. Allawi could be Iraq’s president, according to U.S. and Iraqi officials familiar with the diplomacy. Mr. Obama on Saturday also urged the president of the Kurdistan region, Massoud Barzani, to accept Mr. Allawi in the role of the presidency.

Since late summer, U.S. officials had been trying to get Mr. al-Maliki and Mr. Allawi to share power in the government because neither man’s party won the majority of votes. But Mr. al-Maliki’s Rule of Law party ultimately formed an alliance with the Kurds and another Shiite bloc with ties to Iran known as the Iraqi National Alliance.

Qubad Talabani, Mr. Talabani’s son and the Washington representative of the Kurdistan Regional Government, said the Kurds were disappointed with the United States.

“As the deadlock continues, Iyad Allawi has said the only post he wants is prime minister or president. The Americans have come to us and have asked us to step aside and relinquish the post of president to Iraqiya and specifically to Iyad Allawi, which we find very disappointing,” he said.

Mr. Obama’s personal diplomacy in Iraq stands in contrast to the State Department’s stated position that it would prefer a government that included Mr. Allawi’s party, but was not trying to impose an arrangement on the Iraqi people.

“The formation of a new government will require decisions by Iraqi leaders. We are not trying to impose any solution on Iraq. We are pleased to see serious interaction among the leaders to form an inclusive government,” State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said in response to a query about Mr. Obama’s efforts to get Mr. Talabani to resign.

Mr. Obama’s efforts are also a reminder that despite the president’s announcement in August of the end of major combat operations in Iraq, the U.S. is still closely engaged in the country it invaded in 2003.

While “combat operations” have technically ended, the nearly 50,000 remaining troops continue to train Iraq’s military and conduct joint counterterrorism operations. U.S. military assets continue to provide intelligence to Iraq’s government and protect the supply line for Iraq’s military. U.S. fighter jets continue to patrol Iraq’s skies.

A White House official Wednesday declined to comment on the specifics of the diplomacy.

“We continue to encourage all the parties to form an inclusive government that reflects the will of the voters, involves significant power-sharing among the major blocs, and will guide Iraq through its next chapter,” the official said.

Mr. Talabani, however, said the pressure on his father to resign was reigniting old fears for many Iraqis.

“The Kurds have been the strongest ally and partner of the United States since before the liberation and certainly during it,” he said. “And for the United States to be leaning on us, as they are now, in effect handpicking the new leaders of Iraq, is not respectful of Iraq’s parliamentary system and touches on all of the insecurities of the Kurds, that the United States will once again betray us.”

Kurds consider the first U.S. betrayal to have occurred in 1975, when the U.S. and the Shah of Iran agreed to end all support for the Kurdish rebellion in Iraq in exchange for Iraqi concessions on water rights over the Shatt al Arab waterway between Iraq and Iran.

In 1988, then-Iraqi President Saddam Hussein began the Anfal campaign to depopulate the northern Iraqi Kurdish regions, a military campaign that included the use of nerve gas on Kurdish civilians in the town of Halabja. The U.S. during this period sold Iraq grain credits and only made a symbolic protest.

At the close of the 1991 Persian Gulf War, President George H.W. Bush gave a speech urging Iraqis to rise up against Saddam, but privately the U.S. allowed him to use attack helicopters to put down the rebellion even though the U.S. and its coalition partners controlled Iraq’s air space.

According to U.S. and Iraqi officials, Mr. Biden in a phone call last week offered the Kurds the speakership of the Parliament and the Oil Ministry and also a public statement offering the Kurds a security guarantee.

Mr. Biden’s office declined to comment for this report.

On Tuesday, Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and John McCain of Arizona, and Sen. Joe Lieberman, Connecticut independent, urged Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdistan region, to replace Mr. Talabani as well.

Reidar Visser, a researcher at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs and proprietor of the Gulf Analysis blog, said: “I find this strange that the Obama administration is pushing so hard for Iraqiya to get the presidency, because the speakership will be more powerful.”

Mr. Visser added that the veto powers of the president will expire this year.

“The Americans do not appreciate the challenges involved in upgrading the presidency to the level where it has power that would make it attractive to Allawi,” he said. “That will require constitutional change, and that would require a referendum. So it’s hard to see how the Americans can make good on their promise.”