Friday, May 28, 2004

BAGHDAD — The Iraqi Governing Council yesterday voted to endorse one of its members, Iyad Allawi, a Shi’ite Muslim and former exiled opponent of Saddam Hussein, to become prime minister in the new government assuming authority June 30.

A senior Bush administration official in Baghdad confirmed that Mr. Allawi will take over at the end of next month, adding, “We are delighted with the choice.”

The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said Mr. Allawi has broad political support in Iraq.

United Nations envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, who has been working with the coalition to select a new government, “respects” the decision and is willing to work with Mr. Allawi to pick the rest of the government, a U.N. spokesman in New York said.

However, Mr. Brahimi left some question marks around the selection, saying Mr. Allawi must have support from a broad Iraqi political spectrum. “Let’s see what the Iraqi street has to say about this name,” spokesman Fred Eckhard said.

The announcement “is not how we expected it to happen … but the Iraqis seem to agree on this candidate and if they do, Mr. Brahimi is ready to work with this candidate,” Mr. Eckhard said.

“In the end, it’s the Governing Council and the [U.S.-led coalition] that will make the decision,” he said.

After council members announced Mr. Allawi as its recommendation, Mr. Brahimi joined the council meeting in Baghdad. The council decided not to nominate a president and two vice presidents as well yesterday, as they had planned.

Mr. Brahimi is scheduled to announce the lineup of the new government, including 26 Cabinet members, by Monday.

Mr. Allawi would appear to be far from the nonpolitical “technocrat” Mr. Brahimi had been seeking for the government’s top spots: local, nonpolitical “technocrats” respected by Iraqis.

Mr. Allawi, in contrast, is a veteran political leader who lived in exile for decades.

But after weeks of speaking of empowering Iraqis, it may be difficult to reverse the public announcement by the Iraqi council.

“It is a done deal,” Hameed al-Kafaei, the spokesman for the Governing Council, said. Mr. Allawi “is a prime minister-designate.”

The selection of Mr. Allawi was unanimous among the 20 council members present or represented at yesterday’s meeting, members said.

Ahmed Chalabi, a longtime favorite of the Pentagon, was not present but his representative voted in favor of Mr. Allawi, attendants said.

Mr. Allawi’s “nomination has a great deal to do with security since it’s … our main problem,” council member Mahmoud Othman said. Mr. Allawi “has been in charge of security matters in the council since its inception. He is the best available choice.”

Mr. Allawi’s security credentials were boosted because his party, the Iraqi National Accord, is made up of former military officers who had defected from Saddam’s regime.

His cousin, Ali Allawi, is Iraqi defense minister.

The chief U.S. administrator in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer, was at yesterday’s council session and congratulated Mr. Allawi on his nomination.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan said the council was only “one of many groups that have made some recommendations to Mr. Brahimi.”

Mr. Brahimi has been consulting with the council, the U.S.-led coalition and other Iraqi political factions for weeks and had presented names — including Mr. Allawi’s — to the council to consider, Mr. Eckhard said.

Born in 1945, Mr. Allawi, a physician and businessman, has been involved in the opposition since the 1970s.

Iraqi secret police were sent to assassinate him at his home in the London suburb of Kingston in 1978 when he struck up a relationship with the British secret service, according to a book by Iraq specialists Andrew and Patrick Cockburn.

Ax-wielding Saddam agents burst into his bedroom but he and his wife managed to flee.

The Iraqi National Accord, which Mr. Allawi founded in 1990 along with former military officers, advocated a coup against Saddam but an attempt in 1996 failed.

Nonetheless, Mr. Allawi continued to have strong support within the U.S. State Department, CIA and Britain’s MI-6 intelligence service, in part because officials were wary of Pentagon favorite Mr. Chalabi.

In continuing fighting in Iraq, attackers wounded two U.S. soldiers yesterday and mortar shells rained down on the main American base in Najaf — separate incidents that threatened the deal aimed at ending the bloody, seven-week standoff around the Shi’ite holy city.

Masked gunmen of radical cleric Sheik Muqtada al-Sadr’s militia — some with knives and hand grenades strapped around their waists — roamed the streets of Najaf’s twin city, Kufa, accusing the U.S.-led coalition of failing to honor the agreement to halt the fighting.

Three Iraqis were killed and eight injured in armed clashes, hospital workers said.

In a sign of the tension, Sheik al-Sadr failed to appear at a Kufa mosque where he has preached every Friday — the main Muslim day of worship — since the rebellion began in early April. Aides said his absence was due to security concerns.

Army Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, coalition deputy chief of operations, reported five attacks against coalition forces in Kufa and said they “would appear to be violations” of a deal announced by Shi’ite leaders Thursday to end fighting in the Najaf and Kufa areas.

Also yesterday, U.S. authorities released 617 prisoners from the notorious Abu Ghraib prison, site of sexual humiliation and abuse of Iraqi inmates by American guards. It was the third and largest mass release of prisoners since the scandal broke in April.

Shots rang out shortly after buses carrying the freed prisoners pulled out of the prison complex on the western edge of Baghdad. There were no reports of injuries.

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