BAGHDAD, April 6 -- Lawmakers elected Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani as president of this predominately Arab nation on Wednesday and set the appointment of a Shiite Muslim to Iraq's most powerful post, prime minister, as his first order of business for Thursday.
In Kurdish-populated northern Iraq, where Talabani led a rebel group that battled the Iraqi military during the rule of Saddam Hussein, Kurds pounded drums and swayed and spun in traditional dances in celebration of the news. Iraqi Kurds, who make up 15 to 20 percent of the country's population, were subjected to repression, relocation and attack during Hussein's decades in power.
Iraq's new president, Jalal Talabani, left, is congratulated by Ibrahim Jafari after a parliament vote. Jafari is expected to be named prime minister.
(Pool Photo Ali Haider Via AP)
_____New Iraqi President_____
Video: Kurds danced in the streets of Iraq after Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani was elected the country's new interim president.
The widely expected appointment of Ibrahim Jafari, a Shiite who also battled Hussein's dictatorship, as prime minister would give Iraq's Kurdish minority and its Shiite Arab majority their greatest measure of political power in a half-century.
Iraq's new leaders made sure Hussein got the message. Jailers set up a TV and video player in the deposed leader's prison cell so he could watch Talabani, 71, sweep the balloting for the presidency.
"According to witnesses, he was unhappy and playing with his beard," said Barham Salih, a Kurdish deputy prime minister in the U.S.-supported interim administration that will end when the new transitional government is seated.
"It seems that it's sinking in that he's no longer president," Salih added.
Hussein, who ratified his rule through periodic elections widely considered to be fraudulent, has maintained in court hearings since his capture in December 2003 that he is still president and is immune from prosecution. "He had that grand illusion," Salih said.
Talabani's election by parliament filled the first of two government posts that have been empty since Shiite and Kurdish slates placed first and second in January elections. Assembly members have been in agreement on making Talabani president for weeks, but behind-the-scenes horse-trading was required to fill the two vice presidencies -- with Adel Abdul Mahdi, a Shiite, and Ghazi Yawer, a Sunni -- so that Wednesday's vote seamlessly put the three candidates into the three posts in a single ballot.
For some Iraqis, the vote was practically a cliffhanger compared with Hussein's predetermined politics.
"I love that this is democracy -- that up to this moment, we did not know who is going to be president," said Baqer Abdul Nabi, 42, a merchant in a west Baghdad cafe full of men drinking tea and smoking water pipes. When the television broadcast of the assembly session began, customers turned up the volume on the TV set and on their political debate.
"Before, there was no one else but Saddam, so we knew who it was going to be: It was Saddam," Nabi said. "They said he is watching TV now, and he saw what happened today. I am glad that he saw the thing that he did not want to happen."
"This is not fair. He's harmless now, and waiting for the court," said a young man in a corner of the cafe who wore dark glasses and a gray suit and would not give his name.
"I do not know why they insist on saying Kurd president, Shiite prime minister, Sunni whatever," the man said. "By doing that, they will create a difference that will lead to dividing the country and causing a civil war."
The interim constitution calls for power-sharing among the Sunni Arab minority that monopolized power under Hussein, the now-dominant Shiite Arab majority and the enthusiastically ascendant Kurds, who are Sunnis.