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Make the President Prime Minister . . .--A Commentary by Roman Martinez '08 and Dan Senor

(This essay was originally published in the March 23, 2006, edition of the Wall Street Journal.)

Make the President Prime Minister . . .
By Dan Senor and Roman Martinez '08

Three months after Iraqis turned out in record numbers to vote, Iraq is still without a new government at the exact time it faces increasingly vicious sectarian violence. The core of the impasse is the selection of Iraq's next prime minister. The United Iraqi Alliance (UIA), the fractious coalition of religious Shiite parties that won the largest share of seats, is bitterly divided over its candidate. Last month, it renominated Ibrahim Jaafari, the incumbent prime minister. But the internal ballot was decided by a single vote, following a campaign which some claim was marred by threats of violence from the radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

More importantly, a coalition of Kurdish, Sunni and secular-nationalist parties has united to oppose Mr. Jaafari's reappointment. Their threat to block his nomination carries real force, as Iraq's new constitution requires a two-thirds supermajority of parliament to approve the new government. Surprisingly, the UIA has offered only a tepid defense of its nominee, and Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani has declined entreaties to intervene and unite the religious Shiites behind Mr. Jaafari.

There is, however, a creative solution to the impasse. Instead of sticking with Mr. Jaafari, the UIA and the other leading parties should consider a compromise that marks a clear break from the status quo. Mr. Jaafari could agree to become Iraq's new president, and Jalal Talabani, the current president and a Kurd, could become prime minister -- a switch. Such a deal would install an Iraqi leader genuinely capable of getting along with all ethnic and sectarian factions, allow Mr. Jaafari to save face by not losing out to a fellow Shiite, and show Sunni Arab politicians that their participation in last December's vote is paying political dividends.

Few doubt Mr. Talabani's capacity for leadership. Large and gregarious, with a dominant and energetic personality that belies his 72 years, he is widely regarded as Iraq's most talented retail politician. A lawyer who spent years fighting Saddam, he is a forceful advocate for moderation and democratic values. He is also among the handful of Iraqi leaders with the political stature to lead a true national-unity government. He could likely attract such disparate and talented figures as Ahmad Chalabi and former PM Ayad Allawi into his cabinet, in addition to technocrats from other political factions.

Objections to Mr. Talabani would center on ethnicity and religion, not ability. Ordinarily, Iraq's predominantly Arab population would think twice about elevating a Kurd to lead the government. But he could be the exception. In today's Iraq, intra-Arab (Shiite-Sunni) tensions have proven to be the most dangerous flashpoints, and Mr. Talabani is one of the few leaders who gets along with all groups. Indeed, in the recent Shiite-Sunni violence, he has played a key "shuttle diplomacy" role to lower tensions.

Elevating Mr. Talabani to Iraq's premiership would upend assumptions about religion as well. Since Iraq's liberation, conventional wisdom has had it that the premier must come from the long-suffering Shiite community. This was a logical starting point -- after all, the Shiites were marginalized under Saddam's dictatorship, despite making up roughly 60% of Iraq's population.But it no longer makes sense today. The political opposition to Mr. Jaafari's nomination is too strong to be ignored. One possible solution would be to replace him with another Shiite candidate from the UIA, such as Vice President Adil Abdel Mahdi. In sharp contrast to Mr. Jaafari, he is widely respected within leadership circles; he has close relations with the other political factions and is one of Iraq's most influential and effective backroom dealmakers.

But Mr. Mahdi is a member of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (Sciri), the chief rival to the Sadrists for political leadership of the Shiite community. He was also recently defeated by Mr. Jaafari in an internal UIA ballot. It is almost impossible to imagine that Mr. Jaafari -- whose self-regard is legendary -- would voluntarily step down in favor of his long-time rival. Mr. Mahdi could also be a difficult choice for Sunnis to accept, given Sciri's control over sectarian militias now accused of abusing human rights. Other candidates within the UIA simply lack the political heft to lead the Shiite coalition.

Yet a Talabani candidacy could allow each of the leading factions to claim a victory. Mr. Jaafari is well-suited to assume Iraq's presidency, a largely ceremonial role with little oversight of policy. He could give long and flowery public addresses, without the burden of responsibility for managing the day-to-day affairs. Mr. Mahdi, a close Talabani ally, could become deputy prime minister. His low-key, technocratic style would make him the ideal COO to Mr. Talabani's CEO.

By lowering the stakes in the UIA internal power struggle, a Kurdish PM could help promote political harmony within the Shiite community -- a key goal of its spiritual leader, Grand Ayatollah Sistani. The Shiite alliance would retain a majority of cabinet posts elsewhere in the government, in keeping with their share of the votes last December. Iraq's Sunni community would also welcome a Talabani-led government. Despite their longstanding fears of Kurdish separatism, Sunni leaders now see Shiite sectarianism as the greatest threat. Mr. Talabani's moderation would be viewed as a welcome development. Just as important, it would provide a clear deliverable for Sunni politicians to take to their voters, and would demonstrate the value of their decision to take part in last year's election.

The time has come for Iraq's leaders to break out of the ethnic and sectarian straitjacket constraining talks over the new government. By uniting around a Talabani-led coalition government, Iraqi leaders can move to address the pressing security challenges now facing their country. The clock is ticking.

Messrs. Senor and Martinez, former advisers to the Bush administration, served in Iraq from April 2003 through June 2004.