Iraq's Shiites Near Pick for Prime Minister

Shiites are segregated by sex at Friday prayers in Karbala. Debate over prime minister continued among politicians as election results were certified.
Shiites are segregated by sex at Friday prayers in Karbala. Debate over prime minister continued among politicians as election results were certified. (By Wathiq Khuzaie -- Getty Images)
By Nelson Hernandez
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 11, 2006

BAGHDAD, Feb. 10 -- The Shiite religious coalition that won the most seats in December's parliamentary elections could announce its choice for prime minister as soon as Saturday, politicians said Friday, as Iraq's electoral commission released certified results of the vote.

The results, which are final, did not change the expectation that the next prime minister will come from the ranks of the United Iraqi Alliance, a coalition of Shiite religious parties, which won 128 out of 275 seats in the Dec. 15 elections. Two candidates from the coalition have taken center stage: Ibrahim Jafari, the current prime minister, and Adel Abdul Mahdi, a secular economist who is one of Iraq's two deputy presidents.

The alliance is divided, however, among its member parties over which man to put forward, Shiite politicians said. Jafari's support comes from his Dawa party and followers of Moqtada Sadr, a popular cleric. Abdul Mahdi's primary backer is his own party, the powerful Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq. It is still unclear which way a number of smaller parties in the coalition will swing.

"We will try to decide who is the candidate by consensus," said Bahaa Araji, a member of Sadr's group. "If not, the alliance will appeal to voting tomorrow. It seems that Dr. Jafari is most likely getting the post."

Noting that each candidate thinks he is the best choice, Araji said, "This is what makes it difficult now to achieve the consensus."

Though Jafari might have a slight advantage within the alliance, his nomination would likely receive a cool reception among Iraq's other religious and ethnic groups. The Kurdish coalition, which won 53 seats, has often squabbled with Jafari over the issue of who will control the oil-rich northern city of Kirkuk. The leading Sunni Arab coalition, which won 44 seats, fears Jafari's religious bent and his party's ties to Iran, a Shiite theocracy.

"We don't have much influence over who they are going to choose for the post of prime minister," said Naseer Ani, a member of the Sunni coalition. "Mr. Jafari was and still is prime minister, but as we and others have seen, his government's performance was a failure in many respects: in security, services and so on. This we believe will affect his chances to be chosen again for the post if the matter reaches the stage of voting inside the alliance."

The Shiite leadership is hoping to avoid an internal battle over the nominee. In a sermon Friday at the Imam Ali mosque in Najaf, Sheik Sadr Udeen Qabanchi told worshipers that Shiite factions "must shape up to run the political process effectively without causing embarrassment to the religious authorities."

Once the new parliament convenes, which is required within two weeks now that the election results have been certified, its first order of business will be to choose a three-member presidency council, which then will put forward nominees for prime minister and other leadership positions. But the strongest parties typically negotiate in advance who will fill each post, and the Shiites' announcement of their pick for prime minister will open the way for choosing nominees for posts such as president, defense minister, interior minister and oil minister.

On Friday, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq repeated his hope that the new government would include Shiite, Sunni Arab, Kurdish and secular representatives.

"We hope that this will be a government based on national unity, formed without regard to sectarianism, committed to peace and with capable ministers who place loyalty to Iraq above that of loyalty to faction," Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, said in a statement. "These ministers should be dedicated to the defense of Iraqi democracy, not to party militias."

The gravity of the situation here was driven home once more by violence. Two Marines died of their wounds after their patrol in Fallujah, about 35 miles west of Baghdad, was hit by a roadside bomb Thursday, U.S. military authorities said in a statement Friday.

In Baghdad's Dora neighborhood, a car bomb exploded near a Sunni mosque Friday, killing at least eight people and wounding more than 20, police and witnesses at the scene said. Capt. Salam Ghadban, a spokesman for the Baghdad police, confirmed the number of casualties.

Witnesses said a parked car loaded with explosives was remotely detonated near the main gate of the Iskan al-Shaabi mosque in Dora, one of Baghdad's most violent districts.

"While I was about to leave the mosque, the explosion happened. We were panicked. I ran out immediately. I saw people shouting and crying. One man was crawling because he lost one leg," said Ihsan Ali, 28, as he stood near the wreckage of his car.

Another roadside bomb exploded in the Ghazaliya neighborhood, in western Baghdad, Ghadban said. Five Iraqi army soldiers were killed and two civilians were wounded, he said.

Correspondent Jonathan Finer and special correspondents Omar Fekeiki, Bassam Sebti and K.I. Ibrahim in Baghdad and Saad Sarhan in Najaf contributed to this report.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company