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Islamist Is Nominated as Iraqi Premier

Times Staff Writer

Ibrahim Jafari, a Muslim scholar and leader of Iraq’s oldest Islamist party, was unanimously nominated as prime minister Tuesday by the Shiite-led alliance that carried the country’s historic elections last month, and his confirmation by the national assembly seemed all but assured.

The selection of Jafari opens the way for the first Shiite-led government in Iraq’s modern existence, and it signals a dramatic change for the Arab world, where Sunni Muslims are dominant. It also puts the United States in the position of providing its armed forces to protect a government led by an Islamist with ties to Iran.

The United Iraqi Alliance selected Jafari after the other main contender, veteran exile leader Ahmad Chalabi, backed out under pressure Tuesday. Jafari was chosen after two days of meetings at a compound bedecked in religious insignia and controlled by the largest Shiite party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq.

Outlining his priorities at a news conference Tuesday, Jafari pledged to include other religious and ethnic groups in the new government. He vowed to be firm with the “criminals” responsible for the insurgency that has wreaked havoc on Iraq’s economy and reconstruction.

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“Security is our first priority, as it dominates the minds of our citizens. The state has broken down because of fractured security, reflected in the absence of public services and a paralysis in reconstruction,” he said. “We will use toughness in those situations that require toughness, and we will use the highest degree of softness in those areas that need softness.”

Jafari said he expected the new government to be finalized within two weeks after talks were held within the Shiite alliance and with other political groups to resolve major appointments.

Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani, whose slate came in second in the Jan. 30 election, is thought to be in line to get the largely ceremonial post of president. Interim President Ghazi Ajil Yawer, a Sunni Arab whose slate did poorly in the vote, is considered the favorite to become speaker of the assembly. However, negotiations were continuing.

Jafari, who has served as interim vice president since June, has consistently rated as one of Iraq’s most popular politicians in polls. But his selection aroused misgivings among several groups.

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Secular Iraqis and religious minorities are concerned that his strong Muslim beliefs could diminish the status of women; Sunni Muslims distrust his Islamic Dawa Party because it has had close ties to Iran.

A devout Shiite, who according to an aide has the scholarly rank of mujtahid, or one qualified to give religious rulings, Jafari refuses to shake the hands of women and was behind a move last year to make Islamic law Iraq’s legal basis for dealing with issues such as marriage, divorce and inheritances.

The Dawa Party, founded in 1957 in Najaf, long battled the regime of Saddam Hussein. Brutally suppressed by Hussein, it was given sanctuary in Iran, and Jafari lived for nine years under that country’s Islamic rule. He then moved to London, where he led his party branch in exile until his return to Iraq in 2003 after the U.S.-led invasion.

U.S. policy has been not to interfere in the selection of the new government, and a U.S. diplomat in Baghdad said recently that Washington would “work with whatever government the Iraqi people freely chose.” But privately, American officials were thought to be ambivalent about the choice.

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On the key question of whether U.S. forces should leave, Jafari said Tuesday that he favored “withdrawal of the troops from Iraq as soon as possible.” He acknowledged, however, that it would be dangerous for them to leave immediately.

Incumbent Prime Minister Iyad Allawi remains in the race against Jafari, but even his own party members give him virtually no chance of succeeding. A secular politician and former Baath Party member who broke with Hussein’s regime in the 1970s, Allawi has been a favorite of the White House since assuming office nearly nine months ago. But he has been criticized by some members of the Shiite coalition who believe he was too willing to bring former Baathists into Iraq’s new police and security services.

The Shiite coalition is formidable because it controls 140 of the 275 seats in the assembly and has forged postelection alliances with several small parties that hold about 10 additional seats.

Allawi’s party controls 40 seats. Even if it were to make a deal with the second-place Kurdish alliance, with 75 seats, it would be far short of the two-thirds majority, or 182 votes, that is required for appointing the three-member presidential council, which technically selects the prime minister.

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Shiite leaders hope to strike deals to include both the Kurds and Allawi’s ticket, plus two Sunni parties that boycotted the election, to form what party leaders have proclaimed will be a government of national unity.

In an olive branch to Sunni Arabs who did not participate in the Jan. 30 voting, Jafari said he would look at candidates for his government appointments without regard to sect and would “build bridges” to those who boycotted the elections.

“They can participate in the making of the new Iraq, regardless of past differences,” he said.

What role Chalabi might play was unclear. One of his aides, Qaisar Witwit, was quoted by Associated Press as saying he could become deputy prime minister in charge of the economy and security.

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Long close to the Pentagon, Chalabi had a falling out with the U.S. last year. American officials voiced unhappiness with him over what they said was his forwarding of inaccurate information about Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction before the U.S.-led invasion, his alleged provision of secret information to Iran and his purported involvement in a counterfeiting case in Iraq. He has denied wrongdoing.

As for Allawi, Shiite political spokesman Rida Jawad Taqi acknowledged speculation that the current prime minister, who met with Jafari for 90 minutes Monday, could be the Shiite coalition’s choice for defense minister. He emphasized that “the distribution of the ministries is under discussion and nothing was settled yet.”

Jafari, who is soft-spoken and conciliatory by nature and often speaks in general terms, did not comment on such questions Tuesday. He told reporters that the government would be formed based on merit, and no one would be ruled out, although the choices would take the election results into account.

Asked by The Times how his religious beliefs would affect his duties, Jafari said, “I will not act in a personal manner but rather represent a harmonious program that has been agreed upon.”

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The main points, he said, are, “security, political independence, economic prosperity, guaranteed freedoms and the participation of the whole Iraqi spectrum.”

Chalabi had made a robust bid for the job, with supporters saying as late as Tuesday morning that he had sufficient support to win in a secret ballot.

But one source within the alliance said Chalabi was considered too divisive a figure by the two main Shiite parties, Dawa and the Supreme Council, and that he could not have united its members as well as Jafari. However, Chalabi’s withdrawal from the race seemed likely to add to his political credit.

Chalabi, who appeared at the news conference with Jafari, said he had ended his candidacy “for the unity of the alliance.” He denied that he had been promised any particular position in return for agreeing to step aside. “This is not about posts,” he said.

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Initial public reaction to Jafari’s nomination seemed split along religious lines. Shiites, who despite being a majority in Iraq have long been dominated by Sunni Arabs and suffered oppression under Hussein, were most enthusiastic.

“It is a great pride for the Shiites,” said Muhannad Ali, 22, a policeman and member of the Badr Brigade militia that is affiliated with the Supreme Council. “I was so eager for him to win, because he is first of all a man of religion. Chalabi is also patriotic, but he is not religious. We want a religious man. We want to be close to God!”

“People oppressed in the old times will be relieved,” Hashim Shimam, 33, an itinerant laborer, said in the heavily Shiite New Baghdad district.

Some Sunnis, though, voiced fears about Jafari’s nomination.

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“I don’t like Jafari. He was linked to the Dawa Party and will treat us as badly as Saddam treated them and worse. Everyone knows he is anti-Baath,” said Wrood Tariq, 22, a Sunni college student in Baghdad.

In what some might see as historical justice, the meeting of the Shiite alliance to choose Jafari took place in the former home of Tarik Aziz, Hussein’s longtime Baath Party comrade and deputy prime minister.

In an effort to suppress Shiite political aspirations, Hussein banned the Dawa Party in 1980 and hanged its founder and spiritual guide after an assassination attempt on Aziz that was blamed on the Islamists.

Now, Aziz is in U.S. custody and awaiting trial, and his heavily fortified house on the Tigris River has become a residence for Abdelaziz Hakim, leader of the Supreme Council.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Prime minister nominee

Ibrahim Jafari

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United Iraqi Alliance, which won a majority in Iraq’s transitional national assembly, chose interim Iraqi Vice President Ibrahim Jafari, 58, as its candidate for prime minister.

Birthplace: Karbala, Iraq

Education: Medical degree, Mosul University

Background: Top leader of Islamic Dawa Party; fled to Iran to lead anti-Saddam Hussein movement, 1980; left Iran for Britain after Dawa Party split, 1989; returned to Iraq in 2003 and became a key member of United Iraqi Alliance.

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Sources: Associated Press, staff reports

Times staff writers Raheem Salman and special correspondents Said Rifai, Caesar Ahmed and Zainab Hussein contributed to this report.


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