Maliki, Iraq's Incoming Prime Minister

Jawad al Maliki has been picked to be the next Iraqi prime minister. He is also the subject of recent research by David Patel, an Iraq scholar at Stanford University. Robert Siegel talks with Patel.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

More now on Jawad al Maliki, the man who's been picked to be the next Iraqi Prime Minister. Mr. al Maliki is a Shi'ite Muslim. He's also a close ally of Ibrahim al Jaffrey, the Shi'ite Muslim whom Washington wanted out of the office of Prime Minister.

So, who is Mr. al Maliki and what's so different about him? I'm going to put those questions now to David Patel, who is an Iraq scholar at Stanford University. David Patel, what should we know about the soon-to-be Prime Minister, the next Prime Minister of Iraq?

Mr. DAVID PATEL (Stanford University): The next Prime Minister of Iraq was a compromise candidate between the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq and Mukta al Sadr's faction. He's from the same party as Jaffrey, which is the Dawa Party, but during the Saddam era, he was in a different office. He was in the Damascus office, while Jaffrey was in the London office. And since the invasion, Jawad al Maliki has been very prominent in Iraqi politics, and he's had a key role in particular as being an intermediary, a go-between, between the U.S. coalition and Mukta al Sadr, and served as a negotiator during the standoff.

SIEGEL: Now, Mukta al Sadr is a Shi'ite, well a leader of the Shi'ite militia and someone who was considered a very close, if not a key sponsor, of Ibrahim al Jaffrey, the outgoing Prime Minister.

Mr. PATEL: That's right. Mukta al Sadr backed Jaffrey, predominantly to keep the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq from taking the Prime Minister position. There's a lot of animosity and rivalry between SCIRI's Supreme Council and their leader.

SIEGEL: Well, is one interpretation of what's happened here that opponents of Ibrahim al Jaffrey have succeeded in blocking his continuing in the post of Prime Minister, but in his place they've gotten somebody who is al Jaffrey light, a less-influential figure, but of the same general stripes?

Mr. PATEL: I think the key thing about Jawad al Maliki isn't who he is. It's who he isn't. He is not a member of the Supreme Council, and he's somebody who all of the Shi'ite parties that make up the United Iraqi Alliance List could coordinate on, could agree on.

SIEGEL: Is he somebody whom all or many, many Iraqis would know of and identify with something today? Or is he a stranger to most Iraqis?

Mr. PATEL: He's a stranger to most Iraqis. He wasn't a prominent member of the post-invasion Iraqi exile group that, for example, served on the Governing Council and his name is well known among Shi'ites because of his role in Dawa, and especially because of his intermediary role between Mukta al Sadr and SCIRI. But he isn't one of the top five to ten names.

SIEGEL: Is he a theocrat, by the way? Is he somebody who would impose Islamic law, if he could?

Mr. PATEL: Well, all members of the United Iraqi Alliance List now want Islamic law to play a greater role in people's lives. He doesn't want clerics to run the country. He doesn't want an Iranian-style government with Rule of the Jurist, but he does want Islamic law to be the predominant guide for legal decision-making going forward.

SIEGEL: The United States, personified by Ambassador Khalilzad in Baghdad, wanted Ibrahim al Jaffrey to step down, they wanted him out. And now Washington has declared Mr. al Maliki someone they can do business with, someone they can work with. Why? What is the great improvement from Washington's standpoint of having Mr. al Maliki Prime Minister rather than Mr. Jaffrey?

Mr. PATEL: Well, there are a couple issues. The first is that there is a widespread perception that Jaffrey wasn't capable of pushing through the reforms, especially the reforms of the police sector that were necessary to recreate order in Iraq. Much of the social order that exists in Iraq is maintained by militias who, in some cases, wear police uniforms and the U.S. coalition has called this the year of the police, and they're going to try to take back and build up the police forces. And that's going to lead them into a lot of confrontations with militias, especially with Mukta al Sadr's militia.

If Jaffrey had remained Prime Minister and had remained Prime Minister solely because of Mukta al Sadr's backing, that would have made it very difficult for the coalition to go after elements of his supporters, which are basically occupying and controlling police forces.

SIEGEL: That's David Patel, who is an Iraq scholar at Stanford University. Thank you very much for talking with us once again.

Mr. PATEL: Thank you for having me on.

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