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A Man of Candor and Caution

Ibrahim Jafari Offers Glimpse of Motives in Bid to Lead Iraq

By Caryle Murphy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 5, 2005; Page A14

BAGHDAD, March 4 -- The man who would like to lead Iraq's first democratically elected government in more than two generations admits that he cries. And in that, he finds no shame.

"I am a practical person," said Ibrahim Jafari. "God created a stomach for us, and so there is food. We get thirsty, so there is water. And he . . . created the tears that have to be used for a purpose: to show emotion. If an emotion comes and you don't use tears, it means there is something abnormal in the person. . . . Life without emotion . . . has no meaning."

Interim Vice President Ibrahim Jafari, center, at regional meeting last year, is a favorite to become Iraq's next premier. (Hasan Sarbakhshian -- AP)

Rarely do Arab politicians lay bare such personal thoughts. But Jafari, Iraq's interim vice president and a leading candidate to become its next prime minister, invited a group of U.S. journalists to join him for lunch Friday at his well-guarded home in Baghdad's Green Zone.

For three hours, the 58-year-old physician and leader of the religious Dawa party answered questions on a range of topics, from his views on interpreting Islamic law to whether he likes to cook (he doesn't) to what he's currently reading.

Jafari is wading through former president Bill Clinton's 1,008-page memoir, "My Life." It is long, he noted, but "very interesting."

A senior aide to Jafari billed the meeting as an opportunity for American journalists to get to know the Iraqi politician better. Over an informal meal of grilled fish, chicken and kebab, Jafari displayed the traits that have long been familiar to Iraqis.

Seated at a large dining table in a second-floor room that appeared to serve normally as an office, Jafari, who understands English but prefers to speak in Arabic, was remarkably candid at times but elusive at others. Some questions drew the vaguest of replies or digressions into topics far from the one at hand.

Jafari was also patient, engaging and down-to-earth. At the end of the meal, he asked a waiter to bring several boxes of Arabic sweets to the table, which he opened himself and passed around. When a reporter's tape recorder stopped, Jafari simply leaned over, flipped the tape and pressed the button.

He has been nominated to be prime minister by the United Iraqi Alliance, the predominantly Shiite Muslim coalition that emerged with a slim majority from Iraq's Jan. 30 national elections. At the moment, he and the alliance are engaged in complex negotiations with other Iraqi political groups to win enough support to secure his prime ministerial bid.

Many Iraqis regard Jafari as a sincere and religious man. But a frequently expressed reservation is that he does not have a strong enough personality to be the leader of Iraq.

One of the biggest challenges for the new Iraqi government will be quelling the brutal insurgency that is tormenting the country. Jafari said beating the rebellion would require beefing up Iraq's security forces with more people who are better trained and better equipped.

Holding up a small white plate, he said, "Let's see who those insurgents are.

"There are a minority of Sunnis," he noted, pointing to the middle of his plate-as-prop. Around them, he continued, is a larger group of mostly young people who may be sympathetic to the insurgency but "are good people." The government will not be able to influence the core, he said, but it can affect the views of the larger group around it by having "good representation" of Sunnis in the new government.

This, he said, is one reason he has been reaching out to the Sunni minority, which mostly refused to vote in the January elections. However, "we make a clear distinction between those people who boycotted the elections and those who wanted to murder the election," he said, adding that the first group could be "respected" because boycotting is a democratic right.

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