Conservative Shiite Jaafari edges closer to Iraq premiership

02-22-2005, 16h04

Iraqi Vice President Ibrahim Jaafari was anointed by the Shiite religious coalition that swept to victory in the January 30 elections as its candidate for the country's premiership.

His ties with Iran and presumed support for a more Islamic state have sparked concern, but despite edging closer to the job he has long awaited, Jaafari's ascension as the new Iraqi supremo is not yet a done deal.

"Doctor Ibrahim Jaafari was unanimously chosen," said Abdelaziz Hakim, the cleric who led the United Iraqi Alliance to victory in the elections and heads the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI).

"The idea of a vote had been considered but it was no longer necessary when Ahmed Chalabi withdrew his candidacy at the last minute," said Jawad Maliki, a spokesman for SCIRI, the main rival to Jaafari's own Dawa party.

Chalabi, a maverick secular Shiite and one-time Pentagon favourite, had mounted a late challenge to Jaafari's candidacy afetr early indications that the interim vice president was the favourite for the job.

He told reporters he pulled out to "preserve the unity of the alliance".

SCIRI Finance Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi was also seen as a candidate for the job but dropped out of the race a few days ago.

The United Iraqi Alliance, which won 48 percent of the votes in the elections and more than half of the seats in parliament, is widely expected to successfully impose its candidate for the post of prime minister.

But intense negotiations among various factions in parliament on the makeup of the next executive were expected to last for several more days, as officials juggled the need to maintain a precarious ethnic-religious balance and at the same time reflect the election results.

Several officials and observers have predicted that once the behind-the-scenes deal-making is over, all the key posts will be announced simultaneously.

According to Iraq's interim constitution, the presidential council has to be approved by a two-thirds majority in a parliament. In turn, the president and his two deputies have to unanimously agree on a prime minister and a cabinet line-up.

The new government then has to be submitted to the 275-member National Assembly through a vote of confidence by a simple majority.

Jaafari commands wide popular support among Iraq's Shiite majority but there have been early signs his candidacy will face staunch opposition from some seculars elected to the new parliament.

Interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi hinted last week, after the man who seeks to dislodge him emerged as the Shiite bloc's favourite, that Jaafari might seek to impose a heavy Islamic imprint on the Iraqi state.

"He has to behave as an Iraqi. He has to be loyal to Iraq and not to another country," Allawi aide Imad Shabib had warned, in a thinly veiled reference to the neighbouring Islamic Republic of Iran.

"Religion is a dangerous thing for Iraq. We don't want the Lebanese (civil war) story to be repeated here. There are Shiites and Sunnis in the same tribes, in the same families, but if we go down this road, we will create divisions," Shabib had said.

Provided it remains united, Jaafari's bloc will hold a slim majority in parliament that will not suffice to pass some laws that require a two-thirds approval.

But the Shiites could form an alliance with the Kurds. At 77 seats, they are the second-largest political force in parliament, compared with third-ranking Allawi's 40.