Wednesday, April 6, 2005

From combined dispatches

BAGHDAD — Iraq’s transitional parliament yesterday elected Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani as the country’s president, paving the way for a new government, the writing of a new constitution and an era of democracy for Iraq.

Mr. Talabani is the first Kurd to lead the nation and the first non-Arab president of any Arab state — a sign of the new clout of the once-oppressed community.

Ousted dictator Saddam Hussein watched Mr. Talabani’s election on video from his jail cell outside Baghdad later in the day and was shaken by the experience, Iraq’s human rights minister said.

?He was clearly upset. He realized that it was over, that a democratic process had taken place and that there was a new, elected president,? Bakhtiar Amin told Reuters news agency.

In 1988, Saddam expelled Kurds from strategic areas in the north and gassed Kurdish towns near the Iranian border, killing tens of thousands of people.

The Washington Times reported Tuesday that Mr. Talabani would be named president, with two vice presidents ? Adel Abdul-Mahdi and Ghazi Mashal Ajil al-Yawer.

The announcement yesterday drew applause in the newly formed National Assembly. In the north, Kurds danced in the streets and honked car horns.

Mr. Abdul-Mahdi, a Shi’ite who was finance minister in the outgoing government, and Mr. al-Yawer, a Sunni Arab tribal leader and the former president, filled out the three-member presidency council that now will name a prime minister.

As the assembly met, mortar rounds exploded in a street across the Tigris River. A blast left a crater near the Ministry of Agriculture and the al-Sadeer hotel and injured at least one Iraqi civilian. The target of the attack was not clear, but the hotel, which has housed foreign contractors, has been attacked in the past.

The assembly’s two major political blocs, the Shi’ites with 140 seats and the Kurds with 75 seats, have agreed the post will go to Shi’ite leader Ibrahim al-Jaafari. Mr. al-Jaafari is expected to be appointed by tomorrow, and he then will name the Cabinet.

?This is the new Iraq — an Iraq that elects a Kurd to be president and an Arab former president as his deputy,? parliament Speaker Hashim al-Hassani said after the vote. ?What more could the world want from us??

President Bush congratulated the Iraqi assembly on its selections, calling the vote a ?momentous step forward in Iraq’s transition to democracy.?

Turkey also welcomed Mr. Talabani’s selection, despite the country’s fears that growing Kurdish influence in Iraq could fuel demands by the 12 million Kurds in Turkey for greater autonomy.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan offered Mr. Talabani the support of the United Nations as the National Assembly begins to write a permanent constitution.

Mr. Talabani, who founded the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, began fighting for Kurdish rights as a teenager and later led an armed resistance against Saddam’s regime. He studied law but had to go into hiding in 1956 to escape arrest for his political activities as founder and secretary-general of the Kurdistan Student Union.

After his election yesterday, Mr. Talabani, 71, promised to govern not just for the Kurds, but for all Iraqis ?freed from the most horrific dictatorship.?

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