U.N. Closes In on Choice To Lead Iraq
Shahristani said leading the interim government would be an "extremely difficult job." The caretaker administration, he said, will need to focus primarily on addressing security issues and preparing for national elections in early 2005. "We've been hearing about holding elections for some time now, but we have yet to see any real preparation on the ground," he said.
The interest by U.N. and U.S. envoys in the 62-year-old nuclear scientist reflects their goal of crafting a government with broad legitimacy both at home and with the international community and reaching beyond the 25 men and women appointed to the Governing Council last year, who have failed to win widespread support among Iraqis.
Shahristani, who has a doctorate in nuclear chemistry from the University of Toronto, served as chief scientific adviser to Iraq's atomic energy commission until 1979, when Hussein became president. When he refused to shift from nuclear energy to nuclear weaponry, he was jailed. For most of a decade, he was in Abu Ghraib prison, much of it in solitary confinement. He escaped in 1991 and fled with his wife and three children to Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq and, eventually, Iran, where he worked with Iraqi refugees. He later moved to Britain, where he was a visiting university professor.
But unlike other exiles, Shahristani was not active in opposition parties, choosing instead to focus on humanitarian aid projects. He does, however, have a critical connection: He is close to Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the country's most powerful Shiite cleric, whose support is essential for the viability of an interim government.
Shahristani, who has described himself as an adviser to Sistani, said he has met with the ayatollah several times since the fall of Hussein's government. Shahristani said Sistani has played a "very, very constructive" role in Iraq over the past year. Iraqi officials familiar with Brahimi's mission said Shahristani's lack of political affiliation could be an asset, allowing him to serve as a bridge between various factions.
Shahristani crossed into Iraq two days before Hussein fell to deliver aid to the city of Karbala. Since then, he has divided his time between Karbala and the southern port of Basra, working on humanitarian projects in both places.
"I've been actively working to help the Iraqi people to free themselves from Saddam's tyranny, but I have always concentrated on serving the people and providing them with their basic needs rather than party politics," he said.
Iraqi officials familiar with Brahimi's mission said it was an op-ed piece Shahristani wrote for the April 29 Wall Street Journal that piqued Brahimi's attention. Headlined "Election Fever," the piece criticized the U.S. occupation authority for failing to prepare for elections sooner and for promulgating an interim constitution that was drawn up behind closed doors. He called for the government taking power on June 30 to have limited powers aimed at preparing the country for elections -- a position advocated by Sistani.
Brahimi is now expected to announce the full interim government lineup Tuesday, said the senior administration official in Baghdad. The U.N. and U.S. envoys are still trying to negotiate a compromise with Kurdish leaders, who are demanding that they be given the presidency or premiership.
A senior Kurdish politician, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the Kurds had been offered two of the four most powerful ministries in exchange for accepting one of the two vice presidential posts, but Kurdish leaders have not decided whether they will accept the proposal. "We're still negotiating," the politician said. "We have not made a decision."
Chandrasekaran reported from Baghdad. Staff writer Colum Lynch contributed to this report from the United Nations.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company