New Iraqi president faces task of unifying his country

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BAGHDAD — Iraq’s Parliament on Thursday elected a soft-spoken Kurdish Islamic scholar as president amid hopes — and some uncertainty — that he will be able to save this oil-rich country from dismemberment at the hands of a radical Islamist army.

A veteran politician who is known as a moderate and a conciliator, Fouad Massoum, 76, co-founded the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK, party along with Jalal Talabani, the country’s outgoing president, and served as the first prime minister of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region.

While many politicians had warm words for Mr. Massoum, a respected Kurdistan analyst cautioned that the longtime opponent of ousted leader Saddam Hussein is widely viewed as weak. “He’s a compromise candidate in Irbil,” said Hiwa Osman, referring to the capital of the Kurdistan Regional Government. “If people want a compromise, they use him.” The post of president was weak to begin with, Mr. Osman said, and “with him, it will be weaker.”

Since the overthrow of Saddam in the U.S. invasion 11 years ago, the post of president has traditionally gone to a Kurd, and by a political arrangement among Kurds from the PUK. But Mr. Massoum’s path to the position wasn’t smooth. With Kurds uncertain if they want to remain part of Iraq or pursue independence, the PUK originally named two candidates.

It wasn’t until late Wednesday, hours after Parliament was called into session for the vote, that the party picked Mr. Massoum as its candidate over former Prime Minister Barham Saleh. But another PUK member, Kirkuk Gov. Najimaldin Karim, also tossed his hat in the ring. Mr. Massoum received 211 votes in the 328-seat Parliament in the second-round vote, with 17 members casting ballots for an unknown politician, and 41 members submitting blank ballots. Some 102 men and women were on the first-round ballot.

Iraq’s crisis is almost unparalleled. As much as half the country is under the control of the Islamic State, an al-Qaida spinoff that has declared an Islamic caliphate that stretches into Syria. The Iraqi army is in a state of collapse, and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who personally controls the arm,y insists on retaining his position.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who met Thursday with Mr. Maliki, said Iraq’s very survival as a state was at risk. Standing alongside the prime minister, who at times seemed to be scowling, Mr. Ban waded into Iraq’s domestic politics in a manner rare for a U.N. chief. He called for “a thoroughly inclusive government,” implying that Mr. Maliki’s was anything but, and urged the central government and the Kurdish government to resolve their differences.

“Iraq is facing an existential threat, but it can be overcome through the formation of a thoroughly inclusive government — a government that can address the concerns of all communities, including security, political, social and economic matters,” he said. “It must be a government in which all Iraqis, regardless of background, feel represented.”

The carnage continues daily. On Thursday, 52 prisoners — most likely Sunni Muslims — died while being moved from Taji prison, west of Baghdad, along with nine policemen. The Iraq Interior Ministry said the bus carrying the prisoners was hit by unknown gunmen, but in at least one previous massacre of detainees being moved, the police themselves had executed their prisoners.

Two car bombs were detonated Thursday evening in Baghdad’s upscale Karrada neighborhood, one close to the area’s premier shopping area, crowded with families shopping at the end of the holy month of Ramadan, and the other outside a Roman Catholic hospital. Iraqi news media reported that 10 people were killed and 25 wounded, some seriously.

Mr. Massoum’s first major task is to direct creation of a new government, which will be no minor challenge. Mr. Maliki has a valid claim to staying in the top post after his Shiite coalition won a plurality in the April 30 elections, but Kurds and Sunnis are united in demanding that he be replaced.

In Washington, a senior State Department official said Thursday that Mr. Massoum’s election reflected the consensus of the country, as did that of the new Parliament speaker, Salim al-Jabouri, a Sunni. But he indicated that Mr. Maliki staying on would not. “Leaders do have to have a very inclusive agenda to pull the country together,” Brett McGurk, a deputy assistant secretary of state, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “It remains to be seen whether the existing prime minister could build such a consensus, but that remains very much in question.”

With the radical Islamists almost at the capital gates, the biggest question is whether Mr. Massoum is the man who can steer the country back to stability.

“I have witnessed him in action,” said Mithal al-Alusi, a secular Sunni politician with the Iraqi Democratic Movement. In 2004, when U.S. forces and the Iraqi army were in a dire confrontation with the Shiite Mahdi Army militia in Najaf, Mr. Massoum “saved the day,” Mr. Alusi said. “He has a calm demeanor and nerves of steel. He has a capability of finding solutions far from the extremes.”

Part of the high-wire act that Mr. Massoum will have before him is to keep the country together, which runs counter to the drive in Kurdistan for independence.

But Laith Shubbar, a politician with the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, a Shiite political movement, said Mr. Massoum had played a prominent role in drafting the new Iraqi constitution following the U.S. invasion. That document made Kurdistan a largely autonomous province. “I believe he will be active in preserving the provisions of the constitution, which will put him in a strong negotiating position with all sides,” he said.

Mr. Massoum, who studied Islamic Shariah law as an undergraduate and received his doctorate in Islamic philosophy, “commands great personal respect from politicians in all the political blocs,” Mr. Shubbar said.

“The Kurds have not spelled out yet exactly how they want to get out of Iraq, or if they want to get out of Iraq,” said Mr. Osman, the political analyst. “At the same time, the Kurds are bound to the constitution.”

United States military - United States government - Middle East - Iraq - Ban Ki-Moon - Saddam Hussein - Nouri al-Maliki - Iraq government - Baghdad - U.S. Army - Jalal Talabani - Roy Gutman

First Published July 24, 2014 4:00 PM


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