By ANTHONY SHADID and SAM DAGHER
Published: March 13, 2010
BAGHDAD — Few doubted that the choice of the country’s next prime minister would prove to be one of the most intractable disputes in forging a new government to lead Iraq as the American military withdraws.
But in negotiations that could last months, the presidency, a largely ceremonial post, has emerged as a growing quarrel, threatening to upset Iraq’s still tenuous and ambiguous arrangements of sect, ethnicity and power.
It was the latest demarcation across a political map that grew more muddied on Saturday as early returns from last week’s election showed Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki’s coalition, whose seats compose the single biggest bloc in Parliament, taking the lead in Baghdad. But his rivals appeared to perform respectably in the capital and in Nineveh and other provinces with a Sunni Arab majority and in rural Shiite Arab regions of southern Iraq.
The closeness of the race so far — with Mr. Maliki winning a plurality in initial returns that are far from conclusive — underlines the complexity of negotiations in which it is possible no party will score anything resembling a mandate. The absence of a clear winner in early results, and the chaotic way electoral officials have released them, seems to have encouraged jockeying for leverage across a landscape that many politicians deem wide open.
Perhaps no position is up for grabs more than the presidency.
“We have to remember that choosing the president is the key and crucial step in this process,” said Ibrahim al-Sumaidaie, a political analyst and a candidate in last Sunday’s vote. “I think we will witness a long, complicated process with bargaining and a series of delays.”
In the bargaining over the makeup of the last government, formed in 2006, Iraq’s three most prominent posts were divided along sectarian and ethnic lines: the prime minister to a Shiite Arab, the presidency to a Kurd and the Parliament speaker to a Sunni Arab. The process lasted more than five months and exacerbated Iraq’s divisions.
But the Constitution does not stipulate the division on sectarian and ethnic lines. And while identity remains the axis of politics here, many recoil at making any affiliation a prerequisite.
Until now, only the position of prime minister, by far the most powerful office, seems assured of going to a Shiite Arab. Mr. Maliki and Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite and former interim prime minister, appear to be front-runners.
In the past week, though, politicians have suggested a flurry of names for the presidency — from a representative of the Turkmen minority, whose relevance in national politics comes from its prominence in the divided city of Kirkuk in northern Iraq, to a tribal Sunni leader whose claim to fame is his late brother’s role in defeating the insurgency in western Iraq. Even Adnan Pachachi, an 86-year-old lawmaker, has expressed his desire to end his career by being president.
But the most strident claims have come from Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, who is a Sunni Arab, and the current president, Jalal Talabani, the Kurdish candidate, whose avuncular nature made him a compromise pick for a post even he, with a self-deprecating smile, called honorary.
Mr. Hashimi’s very public ambitions for the job have already ignited a dispute with Kurdish officials, who are eager to retain a pivotal say in politics in Baghdad.
Fuad Hussein, the chief of staff to Massoud Barzani, the president of the semiautonomous Kurdish region, called the notion “insulting for the Kurdish people, as if the Kurds cannot produce a president in this country or cannot be president in this country.”
A statement from Mr. Barzani’s office last week went further, saying the idea that the next president must be a Sunni Arab rekindled beliefs of “chauvinism and ethnic superiority” that were redolent of the days of President Saddam Hussein.
On Saturday, Mr. Hashimi apologized for any slight but reiterated his ambition.
“It is the right of the vice president to express his will to be a president of the republic in the future,” a statement from his office said. It asked how “insisting on a particular person or particular ethnicity” for the position “adheres to the Constitution.”
The intensity of the dispute reflects some of the most divisive issues before Iraq today, from Shiite fears that an aggressive Sunni president could weaken their decisive sway over the country’s politics to Sunni ambitions to reclaim prominence through a position that, while symbolic, could serve as a pulpit for the community’s concerns.
Often heard is the Sunni Arab contention that an Arab president, in a country with a clear Arab majority, would help restore Iraq’s tattered relations with other Arab states.
“I prefer him to be an Arab,” said Muqdad Jaafar, a professor of physical education at Baghdad University. “We’re an Arab country, surrounded by the Arab world. Hashimi has good relations with our Arab neighbors.” The Kurds have taken pride in the presidency, viewing it as an acknowledgment of Iraq’s diversity after decades of state-ordained orthodoxy about Iraq’s Arab identity. But they themselves are divided over the post. A dissident group in Mr. Talabani’s own movement has opposed his candidacy. Even if the Kurds keep the post, politicians say, they may fail to agree on someone with Mr. Talabani’s stature.
The stakes are high. In an interim arrangement, Iraq has had a presidency council, consisting of the president and two vice presidents, each with the power of veto. That council, though, is not stipulated by the Constitution. Some have suggested the arrangement may persist, but if not, the presidency could assume a higher profile simply by being in the hands of one person.
In fact, one of Mr. Talabani’s strengths was his reticence on taking strong positions in a country whose political process has shown a remarkable tendency toward deadlock.
“To be fair, many Iraqis saw in Talabani more than just a Kurd,” said Barham Salih, the prime minister of the Kurdish region and an ally of Mr. Talabani’s. “They saw in him someone who has the ability to bring the various factions of Iraq together.”