Can Shiite Jaafari unify the new Iraq?

Ibrahim al-Jaafari was selected Sunday by the Shiite bloc to remain PM.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

After weeks of dispute within the bloc of Shiite Islamist politicians over who would lead Iraq's next government, Sunday they decided that Ibrahim al-Jaafari should keep his job as the country's prime minister.

Mr. Jaafari won the Shiite nomination by a one-vote margin over current Vice President Adil Abdul-Mahdi, virtually cementing his position in the powerful role for the next four years.

Mr. Jaafari's nomination won't be official until a new government is formed, something that looks like it is to be weeks away, at least.

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While the selection of Jaafari by the most powerful bloc in the new parliament is an important step in forming that government, his appointment could prove to be a significant stumbling block in negotiations between Shiites, Kurds, and Sunni Arabs.

Leaders of the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA), the Shiite bloc that won 47 percent of the seats in Iraq's Dec. 15 election, have repeatedly promised to form a middle-of-the-road government designed to cool Iraq's sectarian and ethnic tensions.

And Jaafari pledged Sunday to work with all Iraqi groups to form a government that will serve "the great interests of Iraq."

"This process will start to employ all the energies to build Iraq, to move ahead on the security situation, on services, on the economic situation and reconstruction, on political performance internally and externally," he said at a press conference Sunday.

But during his year in power, Jaafari, leader of the Dawa (or Islamic Call) party, has become one of the country's most polarizing and divisive politicians.

Analysts say Jaafari's nomination makes it much less likely that a "national unity" government - something touted by US officials here as a solution to the country's insurgency - will be formed.

Many Sunni Arabs blame him for the murder and torture of alleged insurgents by the country's Shiite-led security services; Kurds dislike him for a war of words between him and Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani last year; secular Iraqis and the US have been opposed to his advocacy for strengthened Islamic law here; and many average Iraqis are frustrated that the public face of ongoing economic and security failures will keep his job.

Mr. Talabani told reporters Sunday that he wouldn't support a government led by Jaafari unless it gives a cabinet post to Iraqi List's Iyad Allawi, a US-backed secularist.

But last year, when forming Iraq's current government, Jaafari refused to accede to the same Kurdish demand, angry that Mr. Allawi supported easing up on the country's de-Baathification program.

"The Kurdish Coalition will not take part in the coming government unless the Iraqi List takes part in it,'' Talabani told reporters after meeting Sunday with US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad.

The dapper Jaafari, who once refused to shake US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's hand out of his sense of Islamic modesty, was the choice of UIA officials after weeks of often heated debate.

UIA officials say that the swing votes for Jaafari's victory were provided by followers of the firebrand cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, whose Mahdi Army has fought pitched battles with US forces on at least two occasions.

Mr. Sadr continues to demand a fast withdrawal of US forces from Iraq and says he supports armed resistance if that doesn't happen. He's also set to solidify his transformation from a rabble rouser with a private army behind him into a powerful politician. His movement controls three ministries - and the patronage opportunities they generate - in the current government, and is hoping to see that number increase to five in reward for backing Jaafari.

Meanwhile, having lost the premiership, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), who selected Mr. Mahdi, is likely to dig in its heels on the ministries it currently controls, particularly the contentious Ministry of the Interior, which controls the police, paramilitary squads like the feared Wolf Brigade, and domestic intelligence.

Allegations of torture and abuse by Interior Ministry officials, currently led by SCIRI member Bayan Jabr - a former leader of SCIRI's private militia, the Badr Brigade - have come fast and furious in the past year, and have been frequently substantiated.

US Ambassador Khalilzad has pressed hard in recent weeks for the ministry to be kept out of the group's hands in the next government, and Sunni Arab politicians have said continued SCIRI control of the ministry will lead them to refuse to join a coalition government.

Nevertheless, Hadi al-Amiri, current leader of the Badr Brigade, says that SCIRI will not give up control of the Interior Ministry, saying the past abuse of the ministry by Saddam Hussein's Sunni Arab-lead government makes it important they held the post to protect themselves.

Shiite lawmakers cast their votes at the heavily guarded home of Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, the head of Mahdi's party. Jaafari's supporters gathered in the compound cheered when word of the outcome emerged.

Jaafari, a physician, spent years in exile in Iran and Britain before returning to his homeland after the 2003 US-led invasion.

Jaafari's government, which took office in April 2005, had been widely criticized for failing to improve Iraq's crumbling infrastructure or deal effectively with the Sunni-led insurgency. Jaafari's supporters had complained of infighting within the dominant Shiite alliance.

• Wire material was used in the article.

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