Shias make their choice for Iraq's new Prime Minister

Posted in Iraq | 23-Feb-05 | Author: Patrick Cockburn and David End| Source: The Independent

Interim Vice President Ibrahim al-Jaafari, right, who was chosen Tuesday as the Shiite ticket's candidate for Iraq 's next prime minister after Ahmad Chalabi, left, dropped his bid, give a press conference under a banner of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani at the headquarters of the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq in Baghdad, Iraq Tuesday, Feb. 22, 2005.

The coalition of Shia parties which won half the vote in the Iraq election, agreed on Ibrahim al-Jaafari as its candidate for prime minister yesterday, ensuring he was on course to take the job.

The United Iraqi Alliance selected Mr Jaafari, a medical doctor and the leader of the Dawa party, as its candidate after Ahmed Chalabi, a former favourite of the Pentagon and a secular member of the coalition, withdrew his candidacy.

It is another extraordinary twist in the story of the American invasion of Iraq that it should have brought to power Mr Jaafari and two Islamic parties long allied to Iran.

Mr Chalabi's withdrawal headed off a vote by the 140 UIA members who hold seats in the 275-member national assembly.

Mr Jaafari is soft spoken and popular in Iraq, but an Iraqi observer wondered how effective he would be as prime minister. "So far he has been all things to all men. He was against the assault on Fallujah, but he also opposes setting a timetable for American withdrawal."

Born in the Shia holy city of Kerbala, Mr Jaafari, 58, studied medicine at the University of Mosul. He joined the Dawa party, established in 1958 as a counter balance to the powerful Communist Party. He spent 20 years in exile after 1980, first in Iran and then in Britain. He returned to Iraq in 2003 at the time of the invasion.

Mr Chalabi, the other contender to be prime minister, was never likely to win the post since he is widely unpopular, though politically skilled. By standing he may have re-established himself as an important political figure after quarrelling with his former allies in the Pentagon. He was always disliked by the State Department and the CIA.

Last week, Adel Abdul Mehdi, a leader in the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the party that vies with Dawa for support of Shias, dropped his bid in exchange for an agreement that SCIRI would receive a top post in the new government's cabinet.

A delegation from the UIA met in the holy city of Najaf on Monday with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most influential Shia cleric in the country, whose support for the UIA was crucial in securing its success at the polls. But Jewad al-Maliky, a spokesman for the Dawa party, said the meeting had nothing to do with the selection of a candidate.

Mr Jaafari's selection ends more than a week of political wrangling, though Mr Maliky said the issue of prime minister was not the only thing that came up during discussions. Ministerial positions will still have to be divided up between the Shia coalition and the powerful Kurdish Alliance, with some posts possibly going to the Iraqi List of the interim prime minister Iyad Allawi.

Mr Chalabi's insistence on sticking to his bid for PM during the past week incensed some UIA members. As a secular candidate on a religious list, some UIA members felt he was being allowed to ride on their coat tails after falling out of favour with the Pentagon last year over accusations he had passed sensitive intelligence to Iran. Others resented his chequered past, which includes a conviction in absentia in Jordan, for his role in the collapse of the Petra bank there in the 1980s.

Mr Maliky said the assembly would hold its first meeting in the next two weeks. It will do so as the US armed forces begin an offensive in al-Anbar province, west of Baghdad.

The government's main task will be writing a constitution that will go to a national referendum in October, before the assembly itself is replaced in a second election in December. The five million strong Sunni community boycotted the election and is suspicious of Shiascoming to power for the first time in Iraq's history.