May 14, 2004 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 175

The Shi'a-Sunni Debate in Iraq Over Lakhdar Al-Ibrahimi's Role

May 14, 2004 | By Dr. Nimrod Raphaeli*
Iraq | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 175

Lakhdhar Al-Ibrahimi, the United Nations Special Representative to Iraq, arrived in Baghdad on May 5, 2004 to consult with Iraq's Governing Council (IGC), the Coalition Provisional Administration (CPA), and other political and religious groups about the transfer of sovereignty to Iraq on June 30, 2004. [1] Unlike his two previous visits, this visit has been shrouded in controversy because of the role he is expected to play as the "kingmaker." In an attempt to extricate itself from Iraq, the U.S. administration has given Al-Ibrahimi the task of putting together the new political machinery in Iraq that will assume the responsibility of governing the country after the June 30th transfer of sovereignty from the occupation authorities to the Iraqi people.

Al-Ibrahimi's Plan

Consistent with the Transitional Administrative Law (TAL), [2] Al-Ibrahimi has indicated that he intends to dissolve Iraq's Governing Council and appoint a transitional government until the national elections scheduled for January 2005. The details of the plan are still sketchy; aside from declaring that his plan is the product of consultation with the various Iraqi political, religious and tribal leaders, he is keeping the so-called "Al-Ibrahimi Plan" very close to his chest. However, what little is known about it, or what it has been rumored to include, has upset many members of the IGC.

Criticism of Al-Ibrahimi's Role

Members of the IGC, primarily Shi'ites, who will be excluded from the future power structure as envisaged by Al-Ibrahimi lead the charge against him.

A senior Shi'a leader and a member of the Governing Council, Dr. Muhammad Bahr Al-Ulum (whose son serves as the minister of petroleum and hence stands to lose twice), "challenged the American efforts to grant much power to the United Nations in [determining] the future of the country." He threatened that the Iraqis will go out on the streets if "Al-Ibrahimi insisted on his point of view." He added: "The Iraqis are not minors and do not need a guardian, nor are they a flock of 27 million sheep to be directed by Al-Ibrahimi and the coalition." Referring to the role of Al-Ibrahimi in the 1990's [as a representative of the Arab League] Bahr Al-Ulum said "Al-Ibrahimi is one of the people who helped Saddam Hussein stay in power." According to the transitional constitution, the Governing Council shall choose the new government in consultation with the occupation authorities and the United Nations. Bahr Al-Ulum concluded that the members of the Governing Council "know their country and know the people who are qualified to serve in the government better than Al-Ibrahimi." [3]

A few days later, Bahr Al-Ulum indicated there was a consensus among the members of the Governing Council to double its membership from 25 to 50 which would lead to the desired objective of adding additional segments of the Iraqi society into the Council, [4] obviating the need to implement Al-Ibrahimi's plan.

Dr. Ahmad Al-Chalabi, the head of the Iraqi Congress Party, who has most to lose if a government of technocrats is to be formed, told Fox News that Al-Ibrahimi is "a controversial person. He is not a unifying person. He is an Algerian with a nationalist agenda." Al-Chalabi called on Al-Ibrahimi to be more sensitive about the situation in Iraq. [5] In a more direct attack, Al-Chalabi's newspaper, Al-Mu'tamar, accused Al-Ibrahimi of conspiring with the leading elder Sunni politician 'Adnan Al-Pachachi to prevent the legitimate Iraqi leaders from forming a new government. It said the engagement of Al-Ibrahimi's daughter to Prince Ali, the half brother of King Abdullah of Jordan, has distorted his judgment. [6] The following day, Al-Mu'tamar, playing on words, referred to "Lakhdhar (Green) Al-Ibrahimi" as Al-Akhtar (the most dangerous) Al-Ibrahimi. Responding to Al-Ibrahimi's statement that Israel is "a poison" in the Middle East, [7] Al-Mu'tamar accused Al-Ibrahimi of following the path of other Arab leaders such as Gamal Abdal Nasser, Hafez Al-Assad, and "the hateful criminal Saddam Hussein" of hiding behind "the Palestinian veil" to advance their schemes. [8]

A spokesman for the Iraqi National Accord Movement (Al-Wifaq Al-Watani), another Shi'a political party, said "the issue is an Iraqi, not an American issue. We believe in the dialogue and in the role of the United Nations but not at the expense of the Iraqis." He said Al-Ibrahimi cannot force his agenda on everyone, and hinted ominously, "a new security crisis is sufficient to blow up the [Al-Ibrahimi's] idea entirely." [9]

The most recent offensive against Al-Ibrahimi was spearheaded by 27 political figures, including four members of IGC. These political figures have rejected the "ideas" of Al-Ibrahimi as "lacking in neutrality" and warned that his plan will cause sedition and instability "because it allows personalities from the old regime to return to power." [10]

What still remains a mystery is the position of the most senior Shi'a cleric, the Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani,who could easily torpedo any solution not to his liking. One would suspect that Al-Ibrahimi will seek Al-Sistani's endorsement for his ultimate plan once it is finalized.

Greenstock Joins the Critics

A surprise criticism of the role of Al-Ibrahimi came from British Ambassador Jeremy Greenstock who, until recently, served as Ambassador L. Paul Bremer's deputy in Iraq. In an interview with the London daily Al-Hayat, Greenstock said "he was personally surprised at the level at which the Americans were prepared to offer Al-Ibrahimi the initiative in formulating the new government." He modified his statement by saying "the Americans will stay in consultation with Al-Ibrahimi. If they fail to agree with him they may resort to their power of decision." [11]

The Sunni Reaction

On the whole, the reaction of the Sunni politicians to Al-Ibrahimi has been favorable, and even supportive. Sheikh Ghazi Al-Yawer, a tribal chief and a member of the IGC, who lived overseas in exile until his return in 2003, criticized the Governing Council for arguing the issues while "the country was burning." He added: "we are like the Byzantines in Constantinople who debated whether the angels were males or females while the barbarians were [knocking] on the doors." [12]

A spokesman for one of Iraq's oldest democratic-liberal parties, the National Democratic Party, said that Al-Ibrahimi is against the IGC "cloning itself" and the refusal to accept Al-Ibrahimi's idea was "astonishing." This view was supported by five political groups represented in the IGC and a sixth group which is not. These groups include the Iraqi Communist Party, the Free Democrats (under the leadership of the old Sunni politician Adnan Al-Pachachi), the Democratic Party of Kurdistan, the Kurdistan National Union , and the above-mentioned National Democratic Party. The sixth group was the Arab Socialist Movement. These groups, predominantly Sunni, declared that Al-Ibrahimi's proposals have the advantage of doing away with the distribution of posts according to ethnic affiliations. Meeting under the slogan of "democratic encounter," the group of six issued a ringing support for Al-Ibrahimi and deplored the members of the IGC who threatened to abrogate the Temporary Administrative Law. [13]

The strongest endorsement for Al-Ibrahimi's mission was provided by the newspaper Al-Nahdha which speaks for the Free Democrats whose leader is 'Adnan Al-Pachachi. [14] This is hardly surprising because of the persistent indications that under the Al-Ibrahimi plan, Al-Pachachi is slated to be the first post-Saddam president of Iraq. He will have two deputies - a Shi'a and a Kurd. Dr. Ahmad Al-Chalabi has accused Al-Pachachi of colluding with Al-Ibrahimi to keep Al-Chalabi out of any political role. [15] The tension between the two personalities has reached such a level of animosity that Chalabi's National Congress Party has accused Al-Pachachi of "behaving in a strange manner incompatible with his social status." [16]

The Kurdish Position

As mentioned above, the two major Kurdish political parties have joined the "democratic encounter" in support of Al-Ibrahimi. By and large, Al-Taakhi and Al-Ittihad, the two dailies which speak for the Kurdish parties, have taken a wait-and-see position. For the Kurdish community, what matters most is not the timing of the elections but the adherence of the various political and religious forces in Iraq to the principle of federalism that would guarantee the Kurds the measure of political autonomy that they struggled to achieve for decades.


The success of Lakhdar Al-Ibrahimi, as a mediator or a kingmaker in Iraq, remains uncertain and not because of a lack of diplomatic skills nor because of the absence of backing from the United States. Iraq, unlike Afghanistan where Al-Ibrahimi found his crowning moment, is a rich country with the second largest proven oil reserves in the Middle East. But it is also a country torn between competing and fractured political and ethnic groups and parties, some of which may see democracy as a path for Iranian style theocracy.

Such developments have already occurred in many Iraqi universities where small religious groups have turned the universities into citadels of Islamism. [17] This is also evident in the contradiction in Al-Sistani's position which advocates democracy but also threatens to use a personal religious fatwa ( religious edict) to undo any political process not to his liking. The Arab press also refers to the danger inherent in Al-Ibrahimi's thinking of "Lebanonization" of Iraq, suggesting that the allocation of the highest positions of the state machinery will be enshrined in a constitution.

The government that will emerge after June 30 will have the unenviable role of having to negotiate with the U.S. administration the role of the military forces in Iraq and the use of aid resources. Ultimately, the main issue will be how much infringement on the Iraqi sovereignty in the areas of defense, foreign affairs and reconstruction would be tolerated by the population.

ANNEX Lakhdar Al-Ibrahimi [18]

January 1, 2004-Present

Special Adviser to the Secretary General of the United Nations

October 2001-December 2003

Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Afghanistan.

In 2000 he headed a panel which issued a report known as "Brahimi Report," which assessed the shortcomings of the existing system of peacekeeping and made specific recommendations for change.


Special Representative for Haiti


Special Representative to South Africa, leading an observer's team to insure post-apartheid democratic elections. During this period, he undertook special missions to Zaire, Yemen, Liberia, Nigeria and Sudan


Foreign Minister of Algeria


Under-Secretary-General of the Arab League and from 1989 to 1991 served as Special Envoy of the Arab League Tripartite Committee to Lebanon, mediating the end of the civil war in that country


Diplomatic Adviser to the President of Algeria


The Ambassador of Algeria to the U.K.


Ambassador to Egypt, Sudan


During Algeria's independence struggle, he was the National Liberation Front's representative in South-East Asia

Mr. Al-Ibrahimi was educated in Algeria and France (law and political science), and is fluent in Arabic, English and French. He was born on January 1, 1934. He is married with three children.

* Dr. Nimrod Raphaeli is Senior Analyst of MEMRI's Middle East Economic Studies Program.

[1] A short biographical note on Al-Ibrahimi is attached as an annex.

[2] MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis No. 157, December 31, 2003, 'The Birth Pangs of Iraqi Sovereignty,' The Birth Pangs of Iraqi Sovereignty.

[3] Al-Furat (Iraq), May 2, 2004.

[4] Al-Mashriq (Iraq), May 6, 2004.

[5] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), April 28, and May 1, 2004.

[6] Al-Mu'tamar (Iraq), April 28, 2004. The reference to Jordan has to do with Al-Chalabi's trial in absentia for alleged embezzlement.

[7] An interview with the French Radio as reported by Al-Hayat (London), April 30, 2004.

[8] Al-Mu'tamar (Iraq), April 29, 2004.

[9] Al-Hayat (London), May 7, 2004.

[10] Al-Mu'tamar (Iraq), May 10, 2004.

[11] Al-Hayat (London), May 5, 2004.

[12] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), May 1, 2004.

[13] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), May 9, 2004.

[14] Al-Nahdha (Iraq), April 5, 2004.

[15] Al-Mashriq (Iraq), April 20, 2004.

[16] Al-Shira' (Iraq), April 28, 2004.

[17] Al-Hayat (London), March 27, 2004.

[18] Source: United Nations, New York.

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