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Archive for Monday, February 13, 2006

Shiites choose incumbent as prime minister

February 13, 2006

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— Shiite lawmakers Sunday chose incumbent Ibrahim al-Jaafari to be Iraq's new prime minister, endorsing the physician and longtime exile for a second term by a single vote - thanks in large part to support by a radical anti-U.S. faction.

Al-Jaafari's selection paves the way for the Shiite alliance to begin talks with parties representing Sunni Arabs, Kurds, secularists and others to form a broad-based government, which the U.S. hopes can calm the insurgency so American and other foreign troops can begin leaving.

Al-Jaafari edged out Vice President Adil Abdul-Mahdi during the balloting, largely thanks to support from followers of Muqtada al-Sadr, the cleric whose militia has staged two uprisings against U.S. forces since 2004.

Al-Jaafari, who spent years in exile in Iran and Britain, is virtually assured of the top job once the new parliament convenes and a new president is elected in the coming weeks. The constitution states that the president must appoint a prime minister from the largest bloc in parliament.

Shiites won 128 of the 275 seats in the December election for Iraq's first four-year term legislature since the 2003 fall of Saddam Hussein. The alliance picked up two more when a small party joined after the vote.

Disappointment with vote

However, would-be coalition partners expressed disappointment at the choice of al-Jaafari, with Kurds complaining they were sidelined in the outgoing government and Sunni Arabs pointing to his alleged failure to rein in Shiite-led security services accused of abuses against Sunnis.

"We have some reservations, not on the person of Dr. al-Jaafari, but on the performance of his government," said Naseer al-Ani, a Sunni Arab politician. "We believe that his government's performance on security and services was irresponsible."

President Jalal Talabani, a frequent critic of al-Jaafari, threatened to take his 53-seat Kurdish coalition out of the new government unless the Shiites offer a post to the secular party of ex-prime minister Ayad Allawi, whom key Shiite politicians strongly oppose.

"We would have preferred a change of faces so as not to see a repeat of some of the problems," said Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish elder statesman.

Conciliatory tones

Following his selection, al-Jaafari spoke in conciliatory tones about his Shiite rivals and about the need to build an inclusive government. He promised to form a government "based on the grand interests of Iraq."

"Today's victory is not that this one won or that one won," al-Jaafari said. "It is a victory of the (Shiite) alliance with its unity and cool head."

However, al-Jaafari signaled a tough stance with the Sunni Arabs. Shiite officials had insisted the Sunnis support the new constitution and join the fight against Sunni-led insurgents if they want to join the coalition.

"The main basis for dialogue will primarily be the constitution, respect for the constitution and its contents after the people ratified and adopted it," al-Jaafari said.

Iraqis approved the constitution in a referendum last October but many Sunni Arabs rejected it and demanded amendments on issues such as federalism and purges of former members of Saddam's Sunni-dominated party.

Shiite officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said the 30 votes controlled by al-Sadr all went to al-Jaafari, enabling him to edge out Abdul-Mahdi, a leader of the main Shiite party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, known as SCIRI.

United States' view

In Washington, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice sought to downplay the influence of al-Sadr, telling ABC's "This Week with George Stephanopoulos" that there were "many forces" behind the choice of al-Jaafari.

Bahaa al-Aaraji, a senior al-Sadr official, said al-Jaafari was "efficient and able to contain problems."

"We have talked to him and spoken about the mistakes of the last government in total honesty," al-Aaraji said.

U.S. and United Nations officials have urged that the defense and interior ministries not be controlled by sectarian parties. Allawi, a secular Shiite, has been suggested for one of those posts, but Shiite parties strongly oppose him because he was prime minister during the U.S. attack on al-Sadr's militias in Najaf in 2004.

SCIRI controls the Interior Ministry now, and Sunnis claim its commandos have kidnapped and assassinated Sunni civilians under the cover of fighting the insurgents. Interior Minister Bayan Jabr denies the allegations.

Al-Sadr's movement holds three Cabinet posts in the outgoing government and has already made clear it wants more after a strong showing in the December election.

In an interview Sunday on CNN's "Late Edition," Allawi said the interior and defense ministries "should not be sectarian and should not go to people who are an extension of militias," a reference to the Shiite parties.

Other developments in Iraq

Violence continued Sunday, with at least six people killed and 20 wounded in explosions and shootings in Baghdad and to the north. Insurgents fired a mortar into Baghdad's heavily guarded Green Zone, but there were no casualties.

Iraqi police reported an attack shortly before midnight against a U.S. convoy 30 miles north of Baghdad. There was no confirmation from U.S. forces.

Drive-by gunmen killed an Education Ministry official and three other people in separate shootings in Baghdad and north of the capital. A suicide bomber killed a woman and a policeman in Baghdad.

Police also found the bodies of at least five men who had been bound, repeatedly shot and dumped in different parts of Baghdad.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair, meanwhile, promised a full investigation after British and Middle East TV stations aired a video purportedly showing British troops using batons and their fists to beat a group of young Iraqis in 2004.

The tape was obtained by the News of the World tabloid newspaper from a whistleblower it did not identify.

"We take seriously any allegations of mistreatment and those will be investigated very fully indeed," Blair said in South Africa.

Associated Press correspondents Hamza Hendawi, Sinan Salaheddin and Paul Garwood contributed to this report from Baghdad.

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