By Nelson Hernandez
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 13, 2006
BAGHDAD, Feb. 12 -- Ibrahim Jafari, the soft-spoken Shiite Muslim doctor and Iraq's current interim leader, won his coalition's nomination for the post of prime minister by a single vote Sunday, putting him on course to head the country's first full-term government since the fall of Saddam Hussein.
Over a four-year term, Jafari will be expected to confront the vast challenges Iraq faces -- a crumbling infrastructure and rampant violence -- despite the failure to solve these problems during his tenure as leader of Iraq's interim government.
The decision represents a setback for some Iraqis and U.S. officials who would have preferred a more secular leader.
Jafari was chosen after days of wrangling within the coalition of Shiite religious parties that won the largest share of seats in parliamentary elections in December.
The leaders of the United Iraqi Alliance had hoped to resolve the contest between Jafari and Adel Abdul Mahdi, a secular economist, by consensus, but ended up deciding the matter by a 64 to 63 vote. The popular and fiercely anti-American cleric Moqtada Sadr threw his support behind Jafari's Dawa party, tipping the balance against Mahdi's Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq. Jafari then garnered the support of enough independent voters to score a narrow victory.
Because it will hold 130 seats in the 275-seat parliament -- far more than competing Sunni Arab, Kurdish and secular blocs -- the Shiite alliance is almost assured of having its choice named prime minister when the newly elected legislature formally takes office in about two weeks. Under Iraq's system of government, the prime minister is the most powerful public official, with the president serving in a largely symbolic capacity.
Jafari, 59, an intellectual given to quoting poets and philosophers in his public speeches, appeared to be painfully aware of the burden of leading a country still in chaos nearly three years after a U.S.-led coalition toppled Hussein's dictatorship. Iraq is torn by rivalries among Shiites, Sunni Arabs and Kurds. Its infrastructure is in tatters after decades of war and neglect. And the leader of the violent insurgent organization, al Qaeda in Iraq, has sworn to destroy the country's nascent democracy.
"You should console me in this situation," Jafari told Mahdi when the latter congratulated him. "This is a big burden and a position of difficulties."
None of the problems, least of all the violence, has come close to being solved since Jafari was formally installed as prime minister last April. At least six Iraqis were killed and 20 wounded in a series of bombings and shootings in Baghdad and in the north Sunday, according to the Associated Press. Gunmen also kidnapped 14 Iranian pilgrims in the city of Samarra, about 65 miles north of Baghdad, the day before, a police spokesman said.
Ordinary Iraqis complained of the continuing crisis in interviews Sunday, questioning whether Jafari was the right leader for the job.
"Everything went from bad to worse," Samer Abllahad, a shopkeeper in Baghdad, said of Jafari's brief term as interim prime minister. "I think the main reason was that he did not have time to make a difference. Maybe in the coming four years, he will be able to make some changes and bring safety to the country."
An early challenge facing Jafari is gaining the acceptance of ethnic and sectarian factions that have quarreled with him since he took over the temporary government, which was charged with writing the constitution and holding parliamentary elections.
Kurdish leaders, who run a largely autonomous region in northern Iraq, have argued with Jafari over who will control the oil-rich city of Kirkuk. Sunni Arabs, who once received preferential treatment under Hussein, now complain of abuses at the hands of government security forces dominated by Shiite militias. Others worry about Jafari's close ties to the Islamic theocracy in Iran, where the Shiite leader spent several years in exile during Hussein's reign.
"I think the alliance has committed a big strategic mistake," said Tariq Hashimi, the secretary general of the Iraqi Islamic Party, a Sunni group. "Jafari's name is connected to a government that has won a record for the weakest performance in the country." His name is also "connected to all the human rights abuse scandals in the country," Hashimi said.
Jafari's first order of business is to form a government, a process that could take months. Among the thorniest questions are how many Sunnis will enter the government and, in particular, who will assume the important posts of defense minister and interior minister. Sunni leaders have expressed a desire to control at least one of the security posts in the hope that they can rein in abuses by the police and Shiite militias.
If Jafari chooses "new ministers of no ethnic motivations and no background of corruption, there will be a chance to cooperate with him," said Saleh Mutlak, who heads one of the Sunni parties. "Generally, the performance will depend on the cabinet he'd choose, not only on him."
The U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, echoed Mutlak's sentiments in an op-ed piece published in the Los Angeles Times on Sunday. While U.S. officials have expressed a preference for secular leaders in the past, they have said in several official statements that they will accept the outcome of elections so long as the leaders are effective.
"Elected leaders need to govern from the center, not the ideological extremes," Khalilzad wrote. "This is particularly true in the security area, where the new government must continue increasing the capability of Iraqi security forces while ensuring that Defense and Interior Ministry officials are chosen on the basis of competence, not ethnic or sectarian background."
At a news conference Sunday, Jafari's opponents in the Shiite alliance said they would unite behind their nominee despite the fractious process of choosing him.
"We all stand beside him as one hand to do the job that the alliance, the next government and the parliament are tasked with," Mahdi said.
For his part, Jafari, looking ashen-faced behind the podium, said he was wary of taking a job with so many perils.
"The smile on my lips would have been wider if I were excused of this responsibility," he said.
Special correspondents Omar Fekeiki, Bassam Sebti and Salih Saif Aldin contributed to this report.