Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Soft-spoken Shi’ite leader Ibrahim al-Jaafari emerged yesterday as the top contender to be Iraq’s first freely elected prime minister, having promised an all-inclusive government whose first priority will be to quash the insurgency.

“The Iraqi people are varied, and the government should reflect that variety,” the Dawa party leader recently told The Washington Times, reaching out to Shi’ites, Sunnis, Kurds, and Christians and other non-Muslim groups.

Leaders of the Shi’ite-led coalition that won Iraq’s Jan. 30 elections agreed in principle yesterday that Mr. al-Jaafari would be its candidate to serve as the nation’s chief executive.

The coalition, which will control a slim majority of seats in the new national assembly, could finalize that choice and decide on other Cabinet positions as early as today.

The coalition still will have to strike a deal with other parties to secure the two-thirds majority needed to name a government, but analysts saw little chance that it would be denied its choice of prime minister.

Interviewed last week at his offices in Baghdad’s fortified green zone, Mr. al-Jaafari said the nation’s Sunni minority would be represented in the new parliament, but he drew the line at those thought to be behind the bloody insurgency.

“Those who did not participate in the elections but do not kill, we must win them over and open the door of government, and they will participate and help us in writing the constitution,” he said.

“Others, if they committed criminal acts, we should deal with them by law,” said Mr. al-Jaafari, a gray-bearded 58-year-old physician who spent most of the 1980s as an exile in Iran and Britain.

Dawa is one of Iraq’s two main religion-based Shi’ite movements that joined forces for the elections under the banner of the United Iraqi Alliance. Dawa staged a failed insurrection against Saddam Hussein in the 1970s and 1980s before its leaders fled to Iran.

The other main party in the alliance ” which is blessed by Iraq’s most revered cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani ” is the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, or SCIRI, which has close ties to Iran.

With a membership filled out by smaller groupings and people ranging from firebrand cleric Sheik Muqtada al-Sadr to former Pentagon ally Ahmed Chalabi, the alliance won 140 seats in the 275-member national assembly.

Its best chances of cobbling together the two-thirds majority needed to form a government lie in forging an agreement with the Kurds, who will have 75 seats and are demanding the largely ceremonial post of president.

Alternately, a deal with the secular Shi’ite party led by Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, which won 40 seats, would bring the alliance within four votes of the needed 184.

A first priority for any new government will be to establish a role for the Sunnis, who make up 20 percent of the population but won only six seats because of a boycott and security fears that kept turnout to single digits in some Sunni areas.

That process, seen as critical to undermining support for the insurgency, has begun, said SCIRI’s spokesman in Washington, Karim Khutar al-Musawi.

“We have talked to them, and they will join us in the government and in drafting the constitution. We also have had talks with the Association of Muslim Scholars and other Sunnis in order to come to an agreement with them,” Mr. al-Musawi said yesterday.

The Sunni association pulled out of the elections.

“We believe that if we bring all Iraqis in, this will weaken the terrorists,” he said.

The National Independent Elites and Cadres Party (three seats) and the Iraqis party led by President Ghazi Mashal Ajil al-Yawer (five seats) also are interested in joining forces with the alliance to form a stronger political bloc in the assembly, he said.

“We have had talks with most of the electoral lists, even Allawi’s list,” Mr. al-Musawi said, “because any disagreement would break down the political process, and we are eager to see everybody happy.”

The Kurds, who are 17 seats short of the 92 needed to veto any new government, also want a say in the future of the oil-rich Kirkuk in northern Iraq. The Kurds have insisted that the multiethnic area be included in their autonomous region.

Their demand for the presidency “is still under negotiation,” Mr. al-Musawi said.

“Kirkuk is a special issue. We believe the government will reach an agreement with all the parties in the city. It is a complicated issue, and the government will take care of it. They are willing to negotiate with the Turks, Kurds, Arabs ” all of them.”

He suggested the city might be given some special status such as applies to the District of Columbia.

Some analysts think the bargaining among Iraq’s political entities will be settled along economic lines, with control of the country’s vast oil supplies being the deciding factor.

“The state will be the main economic actor but also the main provider,” said Imad Harb, an Iraq project officer at the United States Institute of Peace. “They will be sitting down with the nationalists and saying, ‘You will have a stake in the oil pie,’ ” he said.

If an economic deal is struck with Iraqi nationalists who are the backbone of the insurgency, it will be possible to undercut support for foreign terrorists led by Jordanian-born Abu Musab Zarqawi, Mr. Harb said. “I have no illusions this will happen overnight,” he said.

Mr. al-Jaafari’s deputy, Adnan Ali, said by telephone from Baghdad yesterday that the new prime minister’s priorities will be to tackle the security situation, restart the reconstruction effort and take on corruption in the ministries.

“Nothing can be done without security,” he said. “We will surround the insurgents and use intelligence and new techniques to deal with them.”

The new prime minister also faces the tricky question of when to ask the U.S. forces to leave ” one of the Sunni insurgents’ major demands.

“There is no thinking right now of troops leaving,” Mr. al-Musawi said. “We believe we still need them. When we are able to build our institutions, I think there will be another discussion about it.”

Under Iraq’s interim constitution, two-thirds of the national assembly must agree on a president and two vice presidents, who in turn will select the prime minister and Cabinet.

But in practice, the members of the “presidency council” will not be named until there is a deal on the makeup of the new government. Those choices must be ratified by a simple majority of the assembly.

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