View emerging of Shiite-ruled Iraq

A leading contender to be Iraq's next prime minister says the government should not allow laws that conflict with Islam.

The preliminary count from Iraq's election last week confirms that the main Shiite slate will dominate the new parliament. The only suspense left is how great its dominance will be.

Now, slowly and cautiously, the leading Shiite politicians in the United Iraqi Alliance are beginning to lay out their political demands and expectations.

Iraq's next prime minister will probably be a member of their coalition - not Iyad Allawi, the current interim prime minister and America's favorite. And Islam, they say, will play a bigger role in government than ever before in modern Iraq.

"In the process of deciding the next prime minister we have to start from the results of the election and not neglect people's votes," says Ibrahim Jaafari, a leading contender to be Iraq's next prime minister and now the head of the Dawa Party, one of the two Shiite movements that make up the backbone of the UIA.

"Thirty-six [voters] were lost in the election, and millions more bravely voted, so we have to give them proof that their demands will be met," he says, adding that his list should take the prime minister's post. "We also shouldn't have anything that conflicts with Islam. Islam is the religion of the majority, so it should be the official religion of the state."

Preliminary returns from 10 of Iraq's 18 provinces show the UIA with about two-thirds of the vote, with Mr. Allawi's party a distant second. While two-thirds would be enough for the UIA to form a government on its own, all 10 provinces have large Shiite populations, and the UIA's share of the vote is likely to dip when results are released Thursday.

Comments by Jaafari and other Shiite leaders indicate the US may not get all it wanted out of the vote. Some American diplomats hope Allawi, a secular Shiite, could emerge as a compromise prime minister. In drawing up Iraq's interim constitution last year, US officials and secular Iraqi allies also worked hard to deemphasize the role of Islam.

Jaafari says electoral results and informal polling among Iraqis about favored leaders should also guide the choice of prime minister. Allawi's standing has slipped in recent polls, while Jaafari has always ranked near the top as one of Iraq's most recognized and popular politicians.

"Based on the polling, it definitely won't be Iyad [Allawi],'' Jaafari says.

Many weeks and months of hard bargaining lie ahead for Iraq's 275-member assembly, which could sit as soon as the end of the month, and it is difficult to project precisely where those negotiations will lead.

"We don't know what's going to happen yet - in politics things are changing all the time,'' says Hamid al-Bayati, a deputy foreign minister and a leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), the other major faction in the UIA list.

Nevertheless, Mr. Bayati says there are three leading figures to be Iraq's next prime minister, and all are from the UIA: Jaafari, Finance Minister Adel Abdel Mehdi, and Ahmed Chalabi, a secular Shiite and former Pentagon favorite. "Mr. Chalabi isn't necessarily as strong a candidate as the other two, but he's put his name forward,'' says Bayati.

Another name that is frequently mentioned for Iraq's top post is Hussein al-Shahrastani, a nuclear scientist who is close to Iraq's most popular religious figure, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

Mr. Sistani does not want clerics to be involved directly in running the government, but hopes that loyal Shiite lay people will take directives from religious leaders when writing Iraq's new laws.

"The Koran should be the main basis for writing the constitution,'' says Ali al-Waedh, Sistani's representative in the Baghdad district of Khadimiya. "We should not be politicians, but if there are some things in the constitution that conflict with Islam, then the marjaiyah [leading Shiite scholars] will reject it."

Sistani and Iraq's mainstream clerics do not want an Iranian-style theocracy, but there's a wide gulf between rejecting the Iranian system and wanting a secular state. "We will not follow the Iranian experience - we will have freedom here,'' says Mr. Waedh. "But when we consider things like family law, Muslims must follow the sharia. For non-Muslims, they will be free to choose other methods."

Iraq's route from occupation to full sovereignty is largely guided by the Transitional Administrative Law, an interim constitution that was written by the US and its appointed Governing Council last year.

Mr. Jaafari, a medical doctor who lived in exile in London until the regime fell, says he wants a key provision of that law tossed out. It says that if two-thirds of the population in three Iraqi provinces reject Iraq's new constitution, it will be scrapped. The provision was added to assuage the fear of the ethnic Kurds, who largely inhabit three northern provinces. The so-called "Kurdish veto" could also help Iraq's Sunni Arabs, concentrated in three central provinces.

Bayati, who participated in writing the transitional document, says he doesn't think the Kurdish veto will be scrapped. But other things will change, he says. One sticking point was changes to the law that gave women equal inheritance rights to men. But the Koran is specific that men should inherit more than women, and "this will have be altered."

However, Bayati says he doesn't expect the emerging government will be dogmatic. For instance alcohol, which is forbidden in Islam, will probably remain legal. It's that degree of flexibility that holds hope that while Iraq's Shiites will be the dominant force in the emerging order, they won't impose rules on Iraq's divided population that could lead to more conflict.

"We're a majority but we have to be careful that we don't create other problems, like political isolation or breed more terrorism,'' Jaafari says.

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