Iraqi Shi'ites vote incumbent al-Jaafari for prime minister

Though PM's election was enabled by anti-US elements, US hopes this will pave the way to broad coalition talks.

iraq pm al-jaafari298 88 (photo credit: AP [file])
iraq pm al-jaafari298 88
(photo credit: AP [file])
Shi'ite lawmakers chose incumbent Ibrahim al-Jaafari to be Iraq's new prime minister, endorsing the physician and longtime exile for a second term by a single vote - thanks in large part to support by a radical anti-US faction. Al-Jaafari's selection on Sunday paves the way for the Shi'ite alliance to begin talks with parties representing Sunni Arabs, Kurds, secularists and others to form a broad-based government, which the US hopes can calm the insurgency so American and other foreign troops can begin leaving. Al-Jaafari edged out Vice President Adil Abdul-Mahdi during the balloting, largely thanks to support from followers of Muqtada al-Sadr, the cleric whose militia has staged two uprisings against US forces since 2004. Al-Jaafari, who spent years in exile in Iran and Britain, is virtually assured of the top job once the new parliament convenes and a new president is elected in the coming weeks. The constitution states that the president must appoint a prime minister from the largest bloc in parliament. Shi'ites won 128 of the 275 seats in the December election for Iraq's first four-year term legislature since the 2003 fall of Saddam Hussein. The alliance picked up two more when a small party joined after the vote. However, would-be coalition partners expressed disappointment at the choice of al-Jaafari, with Kurds complaining they were sidelined in the outgoing government and Sunni Arabs pointing to his alleged failure to rein in Shi'ite-led security services accused of abuses against Sunnis. "We have some reservations, not on the person of Dr. al-Jaafari, but on the performance of his government," said Naseer al-Ani, a Sunni Arab politician. "We believe that his government's performance on security and services was irresponsible." President Jalal Talabani, a frequent critic of al-Jaafari, threatened to take his 53-seat Kurdish coalition out of the new government unless the Shi'ites offer a post to the secular party of ex-prime minister Ayad Allawi, whom key Shi'ite politicians strongly oppose. "We would have preferred a change of faces so as not to see a repeat of some of the problems," said Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish elder statesman. Following his selection, al-Jaafari spoke in conciliatory tones about his Shi'ite rivals and about the need to build an inclusive government. He promised to form a government "based on the grand interests of Iraq." "Today's victory is not that this one won or that one won," al-Jaafari said. "It is a victory of the [Shi'ite] alliance with its unity and cool head." However, al-Jaafari signaled a tough stance with the Sunni Arabs. Shi'ite officials had insisted the Sunnis support the new constitution and join the fight against Sunni-led insurgents if they want to join the coalition. "The main basis for dialogue will primarily be the constitution, respect for the constitution and its contents after the people ratified and adopted it," al-Jaafari said. Iraqis approved the constitution in a referendum last October but many Sunni Arabs rejected it and demanded amendments on issues such as federalism and purges of former members of Saddam's Sunni-dominated party. Shi'ite officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said the 30 votes controlled by al-Sadr all went to al-Jaafari, enabling him to edge out Abdul-Mahdi, a leader of the main Shi'ite party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, known as SCIRI. In Washington, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice sought to downplay the influence of al-Sadr, telling ABC's "This Week with George Stephanopoulos" that there were "many forces" behind the choice of al-Jaafari. Bahaa al-Aaraji, a senior al-Sadr official, said al-Jaafari was "efficient and able to contain problems." "We have talked to him and spoken about the mistakes of the last government in total honesty," al-Aaraji said. US and United Nations officials have urged that the defense and interior ministries not be controlled by sectarian parties. Allawi, a secular Shi'ite, has been suggested for one of those posts, but Shi'ite parties strongly oppose him because he was prime minister during the US attack on al-Sadr's militias in Najaf in 2004. SCIRI controls the Interior Ministry now, and Sunnis claim its commandos have kidnapped and assassinated Sunni civilians under the cover of fighting the insurgents. Interior Minister Bayan Jabr denies the allegations. Al-Sadr's movement holds three Cabinet posts in the outgoing government and has already made clear it wants more after a strong showing in the December election. In an interview Sunday on CNN's "Late Edition," Allawi said the interior and defense ministries "should not be sectarian and should not go to people who are an extension of militias," a reference to the Shi'ite parties.