In an effort to break a deadlock in forming Iraq’s new government, the Bush administration has notified the leading Shiite Muslim alliance that it opposes the nomination of Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari for another term in office, a U.S. official and Shiite politician said Tuesday.
The message from the White House relayed by the U.S. ambassador comes amid growing strain on relations between the United States and the Shiite bloc that heads Iraq’s transitional administration. It is the most overt U.S. bid thus far to engineer the choice of a less divisive leader for a four-year government.
Jafari’s nomination six weeks ago elicited fierce opposition from Sunni Arab, Kurdish and secular parties represented in the parliament elected Dec. 15. U.S. officials say the wrangling has frustrated Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad’s efforts to broker the formation of a unity government and has created a power vacuum in which sectarian violence is flourishing.
Jafari, a religious scholar with close ties to Iran, has been widely criticized for failing to defeat the Sunni Muslim-led insurgency and for allowing Shiite sectarian militias to operate death squads within the police force. His tenure has seen a decline in oil production and a lag in reconstruction efforts.
On Saturday the ambassador delivered what he called a “personal message” from President Bush to Abdelaziz Hakim, the Shiite alliance leader, and asked that it be relayed to Jafari, according to an advisor to Hakim who was present at the meeting.
“The message from Bush is that the United States prefers a prime minister other than Dr. Jafari, a leader who is more acceptable to all political factions and who does not have an unsuccessful record in running the country,” said the advisor, Ridha Taqi.
A U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity confirmed that Khalilzad had asked Hakim to seek the withdrawal of Jafari’s candidacy.
U.S. Embassy spokeswoman Elizabeth Colton confirmed that Khalilzad met Saturday with Hakim, but said she was unaware of any message from the White House. She said it was not U.S. policy to interfere in the choice of government officials here.
“This is an Iraqi decision,” she said.
A Shiite politician close to the prime minister, Haider Abadi, said Jafari was aware of the message but had not been formally notified.
“It is not a friendly message,” Abadi said. “The ambassador is creating an atmosphere of rejection against Dr. Jafari by saying the United States cannot work with him. That only discourages the Sunnis and other political factions from being open to compromise.”
For weeks, Khalilzad and other U.S. officials have been stressing the need for leaders who can bridge Iraq’s deep sectarian and ethnic divides, build faith in a national army and police force, and stabilize the country, allowing the United States to start withdrawing troops.
Shiites in the government have grown increasingly irritated with Khalilzad’s public calls to disband the militias and bring Sunnis into the next government. Last month, Hakim said the ambassador’s efforts left the impression of a bias against Shiites and had contributed to the insurgent bombing of a major Shiite shrine in Samarra.
Tensions reached a crisis level this week after special forces of the Iraqi army, which is led by the Sunni defense minister, and U.S. military advisors killed at least 16 people in a raid on a Shiite neighborhood in Baghdad. American military officers said the raid smashed a kidnapping gang operating from an office complex, recovered a large cache of weapons and freed a hostage. Shiite political leaders gave a different account, saying that the operation targeted a mosque and that unarmed worshipers were among the victims.
The Shiite coalition reacted by saying it would back out of talks to form a government.
The U.S. official said the Bush administration was concerned that the raid and the Samarra bombing had drawn disparate elements of the Shiite alliance closer together, making it more difficult to persuade them to reconsider Jafari’s nomination. The official said the administration was aware that the more overt push to quash Jafari’s candidacy might backfire and solidify that resistance.
Salam Maliki, a Shiite member of parliament, told reporters Tuesday: “The nominee is still Jafari. We do not accept any interference by the United States or any other foreign body.”
Other members of the alliance said Jafari’s nomination was still being debated. In an interview Monday with CNN, Hakim said a final decision “will need some discussion, and in a little while the picture will be much clearer.” Under the Iraqi Constitution, the alliance is entitled to nominate a prime minister because it holds the most seats in parliament -- 130 of 275.
But it takes a two-thirds vote to ratify members of the government, so the Shiites need support from other parties.
Jafari won his coalition’s nomination last month by one vote among the 130 cast in a secret ballot by the alliance’s members of parliament, beating Adel Abdul Mahdi, a candidate preferred by Washington.
In U.S.-guided talks on forming a government, other political blocs have proposed that the alliance let parliament choose a prime minister from among Jafari, Mahdi and potentially a third Shiite candidate. The Shiite alliance has rejected that idea.
After their walkout Monday, Shiite negotiators returned to the talks Tuesday but failed to reach an agreement with other parties over who would control the armed forces and police in the new government.
Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish negotiator, said Sunni parties insisted that all security forces be controlled by a Sunni deputy prime minister supervised by the Shiite prime minister.
“But the Shiites don’t want the Sunnis to share any of that control,” Othman said.
Two dozen people were reported killed or found dead Tuesday in sectarian violence. Police in Baghdad discovered the bodies of 17 men who had been handcuffed and shot in the head; most had been dumped under a bridge.
The U.S. military reported the deaths of two American soldiers. One was shot south of Baghdad. The other was killed when his convoy struck a roadside bomb near Habbaniya, west of the capital. They were not immediately identified.
In the biggest wave of kidnappings in a month, masked gunmen stormed a currency exchange house and two electronics shops in Baghdad within 30 minutes, dragged off 24 Iraqis and stole tens of thousands of dollars in cash, police said. The kidnappers in two of the raids wore military uniforms.
Times staff writers Raheem Salman in Baghdad and Paul Richter in Washington contributed to this report.