Global Policy Forum

Leading Shiite Party Selects Nominee


By Dexter Filkins and John F. Burns

New York Times
February 22, 2005

Ibrhaim Jaafari, a Shiite physician with an Islamist bent, was chosen today by the victorious Shiite alliance to become Iraq's prime minister, but the decision seemed to presage several days of protracted negotiations with secular parties who seemed poised to block him. Dr. Jaafari won the nomination of the Shiite alliance when his final challenger, Ahmed Chalabi, agreed to withdraw. Mr. Chalabi, once a favorite of the Bush administration and a secular leader himself, had been pushing for a secret ballot within the Shiite alliance to determine who would become prime minister.

Mr. Chalabi agreed to drop out of the race after intense pressure from the leaders of the two main wings of the Shiite alliance. He promised to support Dr. Jaafari, and stood with him and several other senior Shiite leaders at a press conference to announce the decision. "Unity is more important than winning," Mr. Chalabi said.

Dr. Jaafari, who spent more than 20 years in exile in London and Iran, said defeating the insurgency was his first priority, and he promised to try to forge a coalition that included Iraqis of all sects and ethnicities, particularly the Sunni Arabs, who largely boycotted nationwide elections last month. If he ultimately secures the approval of the newly elected national assembly, he will play a central role in the drafting of the country's permanent constitution, which is to be put before voters later this year.

Yet for all of the carefully constructed appearance of inevitability, Dr. Jaafari faces a difficult task in persuading the large bloc of mostly secular parties, whose support is essential for him to the take the job. Leaders of the two largest parties outside the alliance, led by the Kurds and by the current prime minister, Ayad Allawi, suggested today that they planned to block Dr. Jaafari's nomination and possibly break off enough members of the Shiite alliance that they could form a government of their own.

Both groups are skeptical of the Shiite alliance's pledge to secularism, and in particular of Dr. Jaafari, who is widely seen to favor giving Islam the central role in the constitution and the government. Both the Kurds and Mr. Allawi are also suspicious of the influence wielded within the alliance by the government of Iran, which provided sanctuary to the two main alliance factions, Dr. Jaafari's Dawa Party and one led by Abdul Aziz Hakim, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, during the time of Saddam Hussein.

At least for now, the results of the elections, combined with the complicated rules for forming a government, seemed to point to many days of talks and compromise, and possibly even stalemate. Under Iraq's interim constitution, agreed to last year, the prime minister and his cabinet will need the agreement of two-thirds of the 275 members of the national assembly.

Holding just a slim majority - 140 seats - Dr. Jaafari will almost certainly need the support of the Kurds or Dr. Allawi or both to become prime minister. If they don't scuttle his candidacy entirely, they are likely to set a number of stiff conditions for their support, not only regarding the shape of the government but also the content of the permanent constitution. At the very least, the Kurds will insist on wide powers for the Kurdish people in the north. And both the Kurds and Dr. Allawi will likely extract try to extract a promise from Dr. Jaafari to support a secular state in the drafting of the permanent constitution.

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