in Arbil, Iraq.
President George W Bush has made it clear that he does not want Ibrahim al-Jaafari to remain prime minister of Iraq in a move likely to increase hostility between the US and the Shia community.
Mr Bush has written to the Shi’ite leader Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, the head of the Shi’ite Alliance asking him to nominate somebody else for the post. " The Americans are very firm about this," said a senior official. "They don’t want Jaafari at any price."
Friction between the Americans and the Shia, who make up 60 per cent of Iraq’s 27 million population, escalated sharply after at least 16 Shi’ites were killed in the al-Mustafa mosque by Iraqi and American Special Forces on Sunday night. Many Shia believe that the US was shocked by, and is not ready to accept, the success of the Shia Alliance in the election on December 15.
The prolonged negotiations on forming a new national unity government has served to underline the fissures dividing Shia, Sunni and Kurds. The Alliance has called for security to be handed over to the Iraqi government in the wake of the al-Mustafa incident.
The government led by Mr Jaafari for over a year is a Shi’ite-Kurdish coalition, but the Kurds accuse Mr Jaafari of failing to honour agreements on the return of Kurds to Kirkuk and other places from which they were expelled by Saddam Hussein.
Dr Mahmoud Othman, one of the Kurdish negotiators engaged in trying to form the new government, told me yesterday: "Jaafari has been in power one year and he has failed. He’s not fit for the job and we should try somebody else." He criticized Mr Jaafari for acting as if he only represented one party and not the whole country. Since he became prime minister last year the Ministry of the Interior has been accused of running anti-Sunni death squads.
Unless he chooses to step down Mr Jaafari may not be finished since he is still the chosen Shia candidate and other Shia leaders may not want to break ranks. The unity of the Shia Alliance is also supported by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and the Hawza (the religious hierarchy) as well as by the Iranians.
The prolonged and rancorous negotiations on the make up of the new Iraqi government gives a false impression that it will be a powerful body. In reality central government authority is now very limited in much of Baghdad, Basra and Mosul, the three largest cities in the country.
There is almost a complete breakdown in law and order. Often criminals wear police uniforms. Three groups of gunmen disguised as police yesterday kidnapped 24 Iraqis working in a currency exchange and two electronic stores. Kidnapping has been rife since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003 but the kidnap gangs are operating ever more brazenly, snatching many people at the same time. Earlier this month gunmen dressed as police commandos seized 50 men from a security company.
The objective of the kidnappers is money. Many business and professional people have fled the country. One senior political figure said this week: " A kidnap gang seized my nephew. There was nothing he could do to resist because they boxed in his car with seven cars filled with gunmen. They asked for $200,000 but settled for $20,000."
It is often not clear if criminals are disguised as police or are real policemen engaged in criminal activities. Even a large number of bodyguards may not be sufficient protection. A wealthy banker from Basra and his son were kidnapped in Baghdad by men dressed as police who cordoned off the street where they lived and killed seven of their bodyguards.
Iraqi society is dissolving because of the breakdown of law and order. Sami Mudhafar, Higher Education and Scientific Research Minister, said recently that he wanted to lay to rest exaggerated accounts of the number of university professors murdered in the last three years. He said the true figure was only 89 professors killed over three years, Mr Mudhafar’s other piece of comforting news was that there was no murder campaign directed against the Iraqi intelligentsia and they were simply being killed because they lived in Iraq. In addition to the professors 311 teachers have been killed in the last four months. He added that the government was too weak to defend anybody: "I myself was target of an assassination attempt recently and the government has failed to obtain any lead on the party behind it."
Many students no longer go to universities that are riven by struggles between parties. "The students and their professors are in a very bad psychological situation," Abdulamir Hayder of Baghdad University was quoted as saying. "The only aim is how to flee to a foreign country to escape assassination or threats."