Prominent Shiite politicians deserted beleaguered Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari on Saturday and revealed that they had started looking for a less polarizing figure who could help overcome differences blocking the formation of a unity government.
Kurdish, Sunni Arab and secular blocs all have lined up against Jafari, but members of the governing Shiite bloc had stuck with him. U.S. and Iraqi officials said last week that the White House also had sent a message to Iraqi officials asking that the prime minister be replaced.
Opposition to Jafari among Kurds and Sunni Arabs has been a main stumbling block to the formation of a new government since the Dec. 15 elections. On Saturday, a senior U.S. military official said the resulting leadership vacuum had allowed sectarian violence to fester and spread.
“What we want to see is the rule of law with the government in control and governing in Iraq,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “It’s tough when the government has not been stood up.”
Violence has increased since the Feb. 22 bombing of an important Shiite mosque in Samarra, which unleashed a spate of reprisal attacks by Shiite militia forces against Sunni Arabs.
Shiite calls for the interim prime minister to resign came after the other blocs formally reiterated their opposition to his candidacy and Jafari made last-ditch efforts to convince them that he should remain.
The most damaging development for Jafari, a religious scholar with close ties to Iran, is the erosion of his support within the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, or SCIRI, a dominant Shiite party. A high-level strategist suggested Saturday that the party would be willing to withdraw its support for Jafari if it was unable to persuade the other ethnic and religious blocs to accept him.
“If we find that the road is blocked and other alliances are insisting on him leaving, and we cannot form the national unity government, then we will do what we must to have an agreement between all the blocs for the sake of the political process,” said Ridha Taqi. “We don’t want to hinder the political process.”
Hasan Shammari of Al Fadila al Islamiya, or the Islamic Virtue Party, said that stymied attempts to form a unity government and vigorous opposition by the Kurdish Alliance and the Sunni Arab bloc had moved the Shiite coalition to reexamine Jafari’s bid.
SCIRI had its own candidate for prime minister, economist Adel Abdul Mehdi, Shammari said. Mehdi was edged out by a single vote in an election within the Shiite alliance in February. “They think that Jafari is not suitable for the coming era,” Shammari said, adding that his own party and some members of a third alliance group opposed Jafari.
Three other alliance members including the slate associated with firebrand Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr expressed their continuing support for Jafari on Saturday.
The Shiite alliance holds 130 of the 275 seats in parliament. But the members of the Cabinet must be approved by a two-thirds margin, so the Shiites need the support of other parties.
Jafari’s hold on the prime minister’s office has been tenuous since the close vote in February within the Shiite alliance.
Kurds, who hold the presidency, accuse Jafari of hoarding power and failing to restore Kurdish communities in Kirkuk and other northern cities subjected to “ethnic cleansing” under Saddam Hussein. Sunni Arabs blame Jafari for allowing militias to assume control of police forces that have carried out waves of illegal arrests and death squad operations in Sunni Arab areas.
Taqi said U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad had delivered a “personal message” from President Bush to Abdelaziz Hakim, the Shiite alliance leader, last week, expressing his hope that Jafari would step down. The ambassador asked that the president’s message also be relayed to Jafari, Taqi said.
U.S. Embassy officials denied Taqi’s account, but a U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity last week, confirmed it. Shiite politicians have expressed anger at what they consider U.S. meddling in Iraqi politics.
A Western diplomat interviewed Saturday said that four Shiite political groups within the Shiite bloc, including SCIRI and Fadila, had given an ultimatum to Jafari: Gain the support of the Kurds, Sunni Arabs and secular parties within three days, or step aside.
“They kind of had this deadline for Jafari,” said the diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The cracks in the fragile Shiite alliance have come at a crucial time. Representatives of the four main political groups, including Kurds, Sunni Arabs and the secular national blocs, are putting the finishing touches on the formal structure of the government before making political appointments.
The office of President Jalal Talabani on Saturday announced the creation of a ministerial committee on national security, which will develop intelligence, military and police policies.
The U.S. military official suggested that the government crisis was hurting efforts to curtail militias and contributing to security woes and confusion on the streets. He said a new government could at least formulate a clear-cut policy on the sectarian militias and what coalition forces could do to disarm them.
The political wrangling took place amid a backdrop of continuing violence Saturday. U.S. military officials announced the death of a Marine in “enemy action” in the western province of Al Anbar but did not specify the type of attack or area where the incident had occurred.
Military officials said a U.S. helicopter had crashed south of Baghdad while on patrol. It was unclear whether the chopper had been shot down, and military officials did not immediately provide information about its make or the fate of the crew.
An Iraqi army sergeant was killed in Baqubah in a firefight between Iraqi soldiers and insurgents who were attempting to steal a dump truck, U.S. military officials said. The soldiers killed four insurgents, according to the U.S. military. Insurgents killed five men on a road north of Baqubah while they were driving home from a friend’s funeral.
In Baghdad, two car bombs killed an Iraqi citizen and, in a separate incident, gunmen shot into a butcher shop, killing a man and his son.
Times staff writers Borzou Daragahi, Suhail Ahmad, Raheem Salman and Shamil Aziz and special correspondent Asmaa Waguih contributed to this report.