Leading article: Undermining democracy

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This weekend Jack Straw and Condoleezza Rice were conveyed from the Blackburn green zone to its considerably less comfortable counterpart in Baghdad, where Iraqi politicians have been struggling to form a government for the past four months. The British Foreign Secretary and the US Secretary of State held talks with the Iraqi Prime Minister, Ibrahim Jaafari, and President, Jalal Talabani. There was only one topic under discussion.

Mr Jaafari has come under pressure to step down as Prime Minister since failing to win support from Iraq's minority Kurd and Sunni parties. He is now facing opposition within his own Shia alliance too. Two Shia politicians called upon Mr Jaafari to become a "national hero" by withdrawing from his position over the weekend. No doubt Ms Rice and Mr Straw reiterated to the Iraqi Prime Minister the views of President Bush who, as we learnt last week, "doesn't want, doesn't support, doesn't accept" Mr Jaafari continuing in his post. Whether this will have any effect remains to be seen.

Mr Jaafari seems to be digging in his heels for now. The Prime Minister claims such impertinent commands from overseas undermine the commitment of the US and the UK to democracy in Iraq. He is right to do so. Active interference, such as this in the formation of Iraq's government, can only increase disillusionment and resentment. Many Iraqis already suspect that their government is little more than a puppet for foreign powers. If President Bush is seen to hold the power of veto over the appointment of an Iraqi prime minister - as he will if Mr Jaafari resigns - it will only serve to confirm those fears.

This interference also reveals a dangerous assumption on the part of the US and British governments. There seems to be a belief that the formation of an Iraqi government of national unity will have a profound affect on the situation outside the Baghdad green zone. This is distinctly doubtful. There has been a huge upsurge in sectarian violence since last month's bombing of the Shia shrine in Samarra. Yesterday 40 bodies were found in Baghdad and three US soldiers were killed. A de facto civil war is raging. There is little reason, other than blind faith, to believe that the violence will end as soon as a new government is formed.

There are also suspicions that these diplomatic strong arm tactics are less about improving the long-term situation of Iraq, than enabling the occupying forces to claim that that they have bequeathed the country a broad, national government - one of the preconditions of the US and the UK withdrawing troops with "honour". If there is any truth in this, another cynical betrayal of the Iraqi people is already under way.

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