Saddam Hussein shouts “Down with Bush” in the heart of the Green Zone, British soldiers beat up barefoot Iraqi teenagers and US Vice President Dick Cheney is out shooting people (not Iraqis; a fellow American, and a campaign contributor to boot). Cutting right across this theater of the absurd, Iraqi politicians have manufactured their own, choosing a new prime minister who happens not to be that new.

In a secret ballot among the 128 parliamentarians who compose it, the Shi’ite coalition, the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA), chose Ibrahim Jaafari to be the Iraqi prime minister until 2009. Jaafari, from the Da’wa Party, got 64 votes. Incumbent Vice President Adel Abdul Mehdi, a free-marketer from the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) with good ties in Washington, got 63.

This, then, was a fierce battle between the two main Shi’ite religious parties, more precisely between the SCIRI and the two branches of Da’wa. Jaafari only won because the two Da’was were supported by the kingmaker himself – former US bete noire Muqtada al-Sadr. Da’wa, after all, was founded in the late 1950s by Mohammed Baqr al-Sadr, a cousin of Muqtada’s father.

The whole thing is far from over. According to the new US-designed Iraqi constitution, parliament must convene in less than two weeks to choose the new presidential council – the head of state plus two vice presidents. This council will formally appoint the new prime minister, who will have one month to form his government, to be approved by parliament. It’s practically certain that Jaafari will win.

There is now talk that Jaafari may prefer to form a government with the fundamentalist Sunni Iraqi Accord Front, headed by Adnan Dulaimi, instead of the Kurdistan Alliance and its 53 seats. Relations between Jaafari and the Kurds have been dreadful. But the UIA doesn’t have enough votes to pull it off – at least not yet. The UIA has 128 of the 275 seats in parliament. So it needs an ally to take it over two-thirds so it can form a government of its choice.

The Kurds want much more say in key policy decisions, and by all means want a potentially explosive referendum in Kirkuk on whether it wants to be part of the Kurdistan confederacy; for Shi’ites, this is not a priority. Former prime minister Iyad Allawi, derisively know as “Saddam without a mustache,” the favorite Washington-London asset, most certainly will not be part of the new Iraqi government, even though the Kurds have demanded that he be included.

Ties with Iran will be close, as expected; Jaafari lived in Iran for nine years during the 1980s, at the height of the Iran-Iraq War. He is an ultraconservative. He does not drink, smoke, play cards or go the movies, and he’s totally in favor of sharia (Islamic) law regarding marriage, divorce and heritage rights.

The vote may be interpreted as a defeat for Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, the SCIRI’s leader, but not that much. The SCIRI and its military wing, the Badr Organization, almost inevitably will retain control of the crucial Ministry of Interior, which for Shi’ites is non-negotiable with either Sunnis or Kurds. This means in practice the proliferation of hardcore Badr commandos – many trained by Iranian Revolutionary Guards – running death squads against Sunni Arabs.

Alarm bells are ringing that the internal Shi’ite battle raging since the December 2005 elections indicates that the UIA may inevitably implode well before 2009. This is the meat of the matter; a fractious and extremely weak central government will be in power in Baghdad in the foreseeable future.

Chaos as a non-exit strategy

What does all this political bickering mean compared with the unbearable suffering endured by the bulk of Iraq’s population? It spells nothing but doom. Disgruntled Sunni Arabs will keep refining their double-track strategy of playing politics and military defiance. The Sunni Arab guerrilla – not to mention al-Qaeda in the Land of the Two Rivers – will keep raising hell (attacks against Americans and “collaborators” now average 77 per day; they were 55 one year ago).

“Hell” in this case involves no fewer than 10 million of Iraq’s 26 million people; 6 million in Baghdad plus the heavily populated province of Nineveh (home of Mosul, the country’s second-largest city), and also Salahuddin and Anbar provinces. Attacks also proliferate in Diyala province and Babil province just south of Baghdad, not to mention powder keg Kirkuk in the north, where Kurds, Turkmens and Arabs are at one another’s throats to control the oilfields.

Baghdad – which accounts for 25% of the country’s population – has virtually no water or electricity. The Americans for their part may have become more “invisible,” retreating from main urban centers, but their air war is even more devastating. The White House/Pentagon policy is now a “back to the future” of turning Iraq into Afghanistan, where warlords, religious or secular, and tribal sheikhs defend their mini-states armed to their teeth, and criminal gangs run parallel to death squads. There isn’t a remote possibility of forging a government of national unity under these circumstances.

Which suits Washington fine. The only way for the United States to prolong its Iraqi adventure is to perpetuate chaos; Iraq as the new Afghanistan. Few dispute that the US invaded Iraq for its oil resources, mostly untapped, and that it’s located in the heart of the world’s energy system. Thus, if the US controls Iraq, it extends its strategic power.

Washington neo-conservatives, from Cheney to former deputy defense secretary Paul Wolfowitz, may have dreamed of unlimited strategic power by controlling Iraq. What they got instead is a loose Iran/Iraq alliance. And they still could get something even more nightmarish, as American academic Noam Chomsky put it, “A loose Shi’ite alliance controlling most of the world’s oil, independent of Washington and probably turning toward the East, where China and others are eager to make relationships with them, and are already doing it.”

The new Jaafari government can count on less than US$19 billion a year in oil income – a pitiful sum, due to relentless guerrilla war and non-stop sabotage operations. Most of the income will go to the Ministry of the Interior, some will go to snail’s-pace reconstruction projects, and some will go into paying debts. Just as during Allawi’s government in 2004, billions can be expected to disappear in corrupt schemes.

According to a number of polls, as many as 80% of Iraqis want the US out as soon as possible. In 2005, during the previous Jaafari government, more than 120 parliamentarians (out of 275) were demanding a fixed timetable for the US to go. The new parliament will inevitably have to align itself with the majority of the Iraqi population’s wishes.

Incapable of controlling anything, not even the road from Baghdad’s airport to the Green Zone, and incapable of reconstructing what it has destroyed, Washington for its part will keep betting on chaos, retreating behind the huge concrete barriers that dot the wasteland of its prized Muslim possessions, Afghanistan and Iraq.