Ibrahim Jaafari, a stern and careful Iraqi doctor whose Islamist activism began in his youth and continued during a 20-year exile, is pulling ahead of his rivals in the race to lead Iraq's first elected government since World War II.
Though there's still room for change, aides to both Mr. Jaafari and members of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), the party of his main rival, say they're close to a deal that will deliver him the premiership.
"There's a general acceptance that Jaafari should be our sole candidate,'' says Adnan Ali al-Khadimi, Jaafari's deputy chief of staff. "That's what we're hearing, but there hasn't been a formal announcement yet."
Jaafari's rise will put a Shiite Islamist in charge of the government for the first time in Iraq's history. It also underscores waning US influence over Iraq's politics. The US would have preferred to see a secular leader emerge, not an Islamist who once lived in Iran. Jaafari's party is also unlikely to support expanded ties with Israel, a goal articulated by the US at the start of the war.
And while Jaafari enjoys some support among Iraqis, his new parliament may well be consumed by politicking over constitutional issues rather than creating jobs that Iraqis desperately want and fixing the power supply.
The name of Jaafari's party loosely translates as "Islamic Call" or "Islamic Propagation." While his priorities are protecting the rights of all citizens and ending the war that has claimed tens of thousands of lives, Islam is at the center of his party's vision for the country.
As a politician, Jaafari presents a blend of a secular style, human rights rhetoric, and commitment to Islamic values that sometimes seem contradictory to Western observers.
But his friends and allies say no contradiction exists - that he's a pragmatic politician who sees Islam as the best guarantee against more turmoil, and who believes that a modern interpretation of Islam's political role can be found that's acceptable to most who live here.
"Iraq's minorities must be protected, and they must be given their rights,'' Jaafari said in a recent interview with the Monitor. "But we must also respect the majority, so Islam should be the official religion of the state ... and we shouldn't have any laws that contradict Islam."
"He looks at Islam as a bridge to all humanity, not just for on particular type of people,'' says Mr. Khadimi. "He doesn't want an Islamic republic like Iran's, or a system like Saudi Arabia's. He wants to see something modernized and that recognizes that Iraqis are closely tied to their religion and traditions. He's going with what the Iraqi people want."
"I wouldn't say he's secular, or religious either,'' says Toby Dodge, an Iraq expert at Queen Mary University in London. While Dawa - Iraq's oldest Shiite party - traditionally wanted sharia (Islamic law) for Iraq, Mr. Dodge says the exiles have recognized that something on an Iranian model would be distasteful to average Iraqis, and have altered their message. "Jaafari has been particularly honest about this. He is a pragmatist and the reason he has [some] support ... now is because he recognizes he can't fulfill the dreams of exiles."
But Iraq's top job will not come without complications. The United Iraqi Alliance (UIA), the religious Shiite slate that won 140 seats in Iraq's 275-member national assembly, has been locked for a week in marathon negotiations over how to divvy up power and patronage.
The UIA's main players are Dawa and SCIRI, who are sparring over both the premiership and ministerial posts.
Members of SCIRI say they have withdrawn the candidacy of Adil Abdul Mahdi in exchange for an agreement that SCIRI appointees will be put in charge of the Interior Ministry, which oversees domestic security and intelligence, and other ministerial posts that will provide them a strong power platform.
SCIRI - which has close ties to Iran and to the Badr Brigade militia, an armed wing that was formed in exile - would probably then insert members of the Badr Brigade into the security apparatus.
Iraq's ethnic Kurds, who came in second with 70 seats, will also have to be appeased. They're demanding the presidency for veteran politician and guerrilla fighter Jalal Talabani as well as the foreign minister post.
The Shiite politicians are hoping to strike a "package deal" among themselves and the Kurds over the cabinet, premiership, and presidency before the parliament sits, probably around the end of the month - and it seems that Jaafari has played the game of political brinkmanship most effectively.
SCIRI officials say Dawa has been so adamant about giving the prime minister's job to Jaafari, who polling shows has the highest name recognition and public support among Shiite politicians, that they feared splitting their alliance if they didn't back down. He has a favorable rating from about 20 percent of Iraqis - a small number, but the highest among the politicians.
Shiite leaders said Wednesday that they would hold a secret ballot to choose the prime minister, the Associated Press reported. The remaining challenger is Ahmed Chalabi, who leads the Iraqi National Congress. Jaafari is strongly favored to win.
"On extremely flat terrain, he's the highest point,'' says Mr. Dodge, who adds that Dawa has trumped SCIRI, founded under Iranian sponsorship, because of its history. "Iraqi Shias are Iraqis first and Shias second, and Dawa seems more indigenous to people than SCIRI, which sometimes appears to be a vehicle for the Iranian state."
Jaafari was born in 1947 and grew up among an extended clan of textile traders and hotel owners in the Shiite shrine city of Karbala. They also had the status of being sayyids, or direct descendants of the Prophet Mohammed. He attended medical school in the northern city of Mosul.
He joined Dawa in the 1960s. When he returned home in 1974, he ended up leading the party in the city, setting himself apart as a detail-oriented organizer.
"He likes reading a lot. He likes planning.... He has got vision," says Reda Taki, SCIRI's head of political relations.
Mr. Taki says the diplomatic but hard-charging Jaafari used an aggressive media strategy and excellent public-speaking skills to skyrocket from obscurity to one of the most popular politicians in postwar Iraq.
"Iraqi people didn't know who is Abu Ahmed," said Taki, using Jaafari's nickname. "But he knows the mentality of the Iraqi people ... he knows people like to hear good speaking."
When Saddam Hussein said that all Dawa members would be executed in 1980, Jaafari fled first to Iran and then London with his wife, a pediatrician. He often points to his wife's profession as evidence of his support for a woman's role outside the home.
Jaafari served in the US-appointed governing council, sometimes clashing with US officials, particularly when the interim constitution didn't mention Islam as the principle source of Iraq's laws.
Khadimi says that independence is part of Jaafari's appeal. "He's never allowed himself to be under anyone's influence, in Iran or when came home," he says. "People respect him for this."