By Nelson Hernandez and K.I. Ibrahim
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, April 22, 2006
BAGHDAD, April 21 -- Jawad al-Maliki, an experienced political operator and advocate for Iraq's Shiite Muslims, won the approval of Shiite party leaders for the post of prime minister on Friday, a day after the parties' original nominee bowed out under political pressure.
The move could end the political paralysis that has gripped Iraq since national elections were held on Dec. 15. Maliki, a senior member of the coalition of Shiite parties that holds the largest number of seats in Iraq's parliament, is now on course to lead Iraq's first long-term government since the fall of Saddam Hussein. If ultimately chosen, the former exile would inherit grave challenges, among them an economy in tatters, an insurgent movement that continues to attack Iraq's government and its U.S. backers, and ethnic and sectarian tensions that threaten to tear the country apart.
Leaders of the Shiite coalition, the United Iraqi Alliance, said Friday night that Maliki's nomination by the alliance's political committee would face a vote by the full membership on Saturday morning. If approved, his name would be formally presented to Iraq's parliament, along with a list of nominees for other top posts, that afternoon.
But events rarely proceed so smoothly in the Iraqi political process, which has been held up for months by the debate over who would be prime minister. The incumbent, Ibrahim al-Jafari, won the alliance's nomination in February, only to be opposed by Sunni Arab and Kurdish political parties. Jafari, who like Maliki is a leader of the Dawa party, gave in to weeks of heavy pressure and surrendered his nomination on Thursday.
On Friday night, leaders of the Shiite alliance said they had gained support for Maliki from the leaders of the Sunni Arab and Kurdish political blocs. The Associated Press quoted Adnan al-Dulaimi, head of the main Sunni Arab coalition in parliament, as saying: "If anyone is nominated except al-Jafari, we won't put any obstacles in his way. He will receive our support."
The Shiite leaders also said they had reached an understanding with other factions over who would hold other top posts in the next government, including those of the president and two deputy presidents, who hold the formal power to nominate a prime minister. An aide to Jafari, Adnan Ali al-Kadhimi, said the Shiites had agreed to yield the presidential post to the incumbent, Jalal Talabani, a Kurd. His two deputies, they said, would be Tariq al-Hashimi, a leader of the Sunni Arab coalition, and Adel Abdul Mahdi, a Shiite economist who had been a rival to Jafari.
Maliki appears to hold a stronger mandate within the Shiite alliance than did Jafari, who was chosen over Abdul Mahdi in February by a single vote. Maliki's only remaining opponent among the Shiite parties is Nadim al-Jabiri, a candidate of the Fadhila Party, whose representative abstained from the political committee's vote on Maliki.
Party officials said Maliki won the support of the other six members of the alliance's political committee, including representatives of the alliance's most powerful factions -- the Dawa party; the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, which had supported Abdul Mahdi; and the group led by the radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who had backed Jafari.
Maliki was "chosen for his acceptability both by groups inside the alliance and outside it," Ridha Jawad Taqi, a spokesman for the Supreme Council, said at a news conference broadcast on Iraqi television. "We want to have a government of national unity and partnership, a government that includes all components of Iraqi society, one that will be accepted by any ethnicity or group."
The U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, said the choice of Maliki was "a good step in the right direction. He's an Iraqi patriot. He's a strong leader."
Yet Maliki, born in 1950 near the Shiite holy city of Karbala, possesses credentials that may not endear him to Sunni Arabs or U.S. officials wary of foreign influence. He joined the Shiite-dominated Dawa party in 1968, soon falling foul of Iraq's Baath Party government. He fled Iraq in 1980, a year after Hussein rose to the presidency, and spent his years in exile in Iran and Syria. He was sentenced to death in absentia, returning to Iraq only after the U.S.-led invasion that toppled Hussein in 2003.
Although he was a strident opponent of Hussein, he also opposed the invasion that ultimately forced the ruler from power.
"The danger to Iraq lies in the possibility of the U.S. administration making mistakes in its supervision of this crisis," he said in an interview with the Lebanese newspaper al-Nahar in December 2002 that was translated by the U.S. government's Open Source Center. "Those who will rule Iraq after Saddam Hussein cannot be envied. Don't fight for ruling an Iraq full of widows and orphans and burdened with heavy debt."
After Hussein fell, Maliki and the Dawa party quickly claimed a powerful role in Iraqi politics. Like many Shiites, Maliki supported the removal of Baathists from the government. In 2004, he served as a mediator in talks between U.S. representatives and Sadr, a popular leader who led a Shiite uprising.
Maliki also served as deputy chairman of the committee that wrote the Iraqi constitution. He has argued against splitting Iraq along ethnic and sectarian lines -- a stance that could lead to conflict not only with the Kurds in the north, who have governed their own region for years, but with Shiite parties that favor establishing their own mini-state in the south.
Maliki will also have to deal with a shaken society in which the fear of violence has almost become routine. A U.S. Marine was killed in combat west of Baghdad on Friday, military authorities reported, and more than a dozen Iraqis were killed in bombings and shootings, according to police officials and news reports.
If Maliki is approved, he will have a month to form his cabinet. The interior, defense and oil ministries, responsible for the police, the army and the economy respectively, are likely to require the same painstaking negotiations that the choice of prime minister required.
"Of course there will be some difficult issues to deal with in the coming weeks, particularly the security ministers," Khalilzad said in a telephone interview. "But we had to have this. It's been a good day."
Special correspondents Saad al-Izzi, Naseer Nouri and Bassam Sebti in Baghdad and Saad Sarhan in Najaf contributed to this report.