Iraqi leaders work to hammer out new government

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- A French-educated finance minister and a former London physician emerged Monday as the top candidates to be Iraq's next prime minister after the clergy-backed Shiite Muslim alliance failed to get the necessary majority of votes to control the legislature.

The prominence of urbane, moderate, Western-oriented figures appeared designed to counter concern in Washington that Iran's influence will grow in Iraq after a Shiite-dominated government takes power -- even though the ultimate decision may rest with a reclusive elderly cleric.

Meanwhile, violence continued, with roadside bombs on Monday killing a U.S. soldier and three Iraqi National Guard troops. Officials also said insurgents blew up an oil pipeline near Kirkuk and killed two senior police officers in Baghdad.

Adel Abdul-Mahdi, the interim finance minister, and Ibrahim al-Jaafari, the interim vice president, were said to be the leading candidates for prime minister as backroom trading for the top posts in the new government began in earnest Monday.

The Kurds, who are poised to become kingmakers in the new Iraq, have already said they want Jalal Talabani, a secular Sunni Kurd and leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, to be Iraq's next president, a largely ceremonial post. The Shiites may seek a deal with the Kurds to back Talabani for president in return for Kurdish support for their prime ministerial choice.

The Kurds, who comprise about 15 percent of Iraq's population, have demanded the new constitution legalize Kurdish self-rule in the north. They also want an end to what they call "Arabization" of northern areas where most of the Arabs are Sunni Muslims.

But the Shiites know they must move carefully, particularly if they want to extend a hand to the minority Sunni Arabs to form an inclusive government and tame a virulent insurgency.

Many Sunni Arabs, who make up about 20 percent of the population, stayed home on election day, either out of fear of violence or to support a boycott call by radical clerics opposed to the U.S. military.

Iranian Foreign Minister Kamel Kharrazi welcomed the results of the Jan. 30 elections and said his country expected Iraq's Shiite Muslim majority to work with the country's other ethnic groups.

"Certainly it is promotion of democracy and in that respect we welcome that," Kharrazi said Monday during a visit to Hungary. "We hope there will be very good relations between Iran and the future government of Iraq."

Iran, though not Arab, is predominantly Shiite, and its government has close ties with many Iraqi Shiite leaders.

Kharrazi also said the elections in Iraq were an indication of changes in the region.

"So far, the Shiite population, although they are the majority, have been deprived of their rights," Kharrazi said. "Now, after this election, they have the majority, but this does now mean that they would neglect or deny the rights of the minorities."

Three other American soldiers were wounded Monday when the bomb detonated near their patrol outside the town of Baqouba, 35 miles northeast of Baghdad, the military said.

At least 1,461 members of the U.S. military have died since the beginning of the Iraq war in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.

The election results for the National Assembly, announced Sunday, gave the clergy-backed United Iraqi Alliance 48 percent of the vote, the Kurdish alliance 26 percent, and the ticket led by interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite who supported strong ties to Washington, only 14 percent.

The National Assembly's first task is to elect a president and two vice presidents by a two-thirds majority. The three then choose a new prime minister subject to assembly approval.

The parties that make up the alliance -- the Islamic Dawa Party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq and former Pentagon protege Ahmad Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress -- huddled for talks to decide on a prime ministerial candidate.

Al-Jaafari was the Dawa Party's choice, while SCIRI nominated Abdul-Mahdi, said Humam Hamoudi, a spokesman for the United Iraqi Alliance. He said the alliance would decide today.

But it may ultimately be Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani who decides. Al-Sistani's tacit endorsement is believed to have led to the Alliance's electoral victory. An official in al-Sistani's office said representatives from the alliance would visit the elderly cleric today but that he has not endorsed anyone.

Among other leading Shiites, Chalabi has also thrown his name into the contest for prime minister. Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, a turbaned cleric who led the ticket and has close links with Iran, has said he's not interested in the job.

The French-educated Abdul-Mahdi, who was born in 1942 and is the son of a respected Shiite cleric, was a leading SCIRI politician before becoming the interim finance minister.

Al-Jaafari, a physician, was born in 1947 and lived in London before serving on the now-disbanded Iraqi Governing Council.

Allawi, the secular Shiite who ran the government for the last eight months, had been discussed as a compromise candidate, but his chances dimmed after his ticket finished a distant third. U.S. officials, speaking privately, have suggested he might get a vice presidential position with responsibility for security.

Alliance spokesman Hamoudi said the prime ministerial candidate would be chosen on his ability to unite the splintering population.

"We want the new government to be a joint government, which will include the other parties and political entities that did not participate in the elections," he said, a reference to the Shiites' determination to draw in Sunnis already alienated in postwar Iraq.

Election commission officials did not know when the new National Assembly would meet. Competitors have two more days to lodge complaints or dispute the results. So far, none have been registered.

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