Iraq Rattled by Egyptian Comments on Civil War

Iraqi political leaders are riled by comments from Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak suggesting Iraq's Shiites are loyal to Iran and that the country is close to civil war. Meanwhile, efforts to form a government remain stalled, as Sunni Arab politicians reaffirm their opposition to Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

In Iraq, the political deadlock continues. Today, the country's largest Sunni-Arab block in parliament reaffirmed its opposition to Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari remaining in office. Kurdish political leaders are also opposed to Jaafari, leaving the Shiite majority little choice but to select a new candidate in order to break the months-long log jam. NPR's Jaime Tarabay joins me now from Baghdad. Hello.

JAIME TARABAY reporting:

Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Is this political crisis in Iraq any closer to resolution?

TARABAY: Well, it seems that everyone is really standing firm in their position here. The Shiite alliance had formed a three-member committee over the weekend to try to get the Sunnis and the Kurds to agree with their choice of Jaafari. But they came out yesterday and today and said their final decision was to reject Jaafari as the nomination for the prime minister. Jaafari has refused to withdraw. He says his nomination was legitimate and democratic, and he wants to take the vote to parliament.

But now, in theory, when parliament is convened the politicians are supposed to have met and agreed on the different ministries, and then they present this to the legislature in its entirety, because there's a very short time limit, about two weeks, between when the Prime Minister is chosen and voted on and when the government is finally formed.

And if Jaafari insists on taking the vote to parliament, it's very likely he'll lose. And so that will only add more delays to the process.

But yesterday, the acting speaker of parliament said he would call on the assembly to convene in the next few days. So if this happens, this issue of al-Jaafari as the Prime Minister may be resolved soon.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And Egypt jumped in to the fray over the weekend. President Hosni Mubarak spoke about the situation in Iraq, and he accused the country's Shiites of loyalty to Iran. He also suggested a civil war had almost started. What's been the reaction there in Baghdad?

TARABAY: It really provoked a very strong response here. Ibrahim al-Jaafari, he cut away from his political negotiations within his own alliance to hold a press conference with President Jalal Talabani. They both criticized Mubarak for making these comments.

Jaafari said the Iraqi government had asked the foreign minister to get some clarification from Egypt over the remarks, and Jaafari's Shiite alliance put out a statement along with SCIRI, the largest religious Shiite group in the country. And you know, they both said that Mubarak's words lacked any credibility or any objectivity, and that the Shiites had long paid with their blood to defend Iraq. And they've also demanded an apology.

It really hit a nerve here, because all of the leaders are trying to maintain a sense of unity. Having someone like Mubarak come out and say that Iran is an influence, you know, it's only confirming suspicions by the Sunni politicians that Tehran is interfering in its politics. And it hasn't really helped the situation here at all.

MONTAGNE: And then yesterday's New York Times reported more bad news about the security situation, a report by the U.S. embassy in Baghdad says that in six of Iraq's 18 provinces, the political, economic and security situation is either serious or critical. That again from the U.S. embassy there.

What can you tell us about that?

TARABAY: The military command in Iraq also contributed to this internal report, and it basically says that three years on, the country has shown little signs of improvement.

It broke down, as you said, the different provinces and it reported on the individual situations. The surprising thing here is that many of the provinces in the South, which the U.S. administration points to as an example of stability and progress, have been labeled either moderate or serious in terms of their ability to function. And in fact the only stable areas are those in the Kurdish North that have been relatively autonomous for more than 10 years now.

The report also confirms that there is a religious and ethnic divide growing across the country, and it realizes a lot of fears as well, you know, the growing influence of Iran in many areas in the South, the militias that are gaining influence and that are functioning relatively unchecked, and that violence in areas where ethnicities are mixed is uncontrolled and is just running rampant in places. It doesn't just include Baghdad. We're talking about places like Mosul in the North and in Kirkuk.

MONTAGNE: Jamie, thanks very much.

NPR's Jamie Tarabay in Baghdad.

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