Shiites tap Jaafari for PM

BAGHDAD (AP) — Shiite lawmakers Sunday tapped incumbent Ibrahim Jaafari to be Iraq’s new prime minister, endorsing the physician and longtime exile for a second term by a single vote — thanks in large part to support by a radical anti-US faction. Jaafari’s selection paves the way for the Shiite alliance to begin talks with parties representing Sunni Arabs, Kurds, secularists and others to try to form a broad-based government, which the US hopes can calm the insurgency so American and other foreign troops can begin leaving.

The gray-bearded, soft-spoken Jaafari edged out Vice President Adil Abdul-Mahdi during the balloting, thanks in large measure to support from followers of radical cleric Moqtada Sadr, whose militia has staged two armed uprisings against US forces since 2004.

Jaafari, who spent years in exile in Iran and Britain, is virtually assured of the top job once the new parliament convenes and a new president is elected in the coming weeks. The constitution states that the president must appoint a prime minister from the largest bloc in parliament.

Shiites won 128 of the 275 seats in the December elections for Iraq’s first four-year term legislature since the 2003 fall of Saddam Hussein and picked up two more when a small party joined after the vote.

However, would-be coalition partners expressed disappointment at the choice, with Kurds complaining they were sidelined in the outgoing government and Sunni Arabs pointing to Jaafari’s alleged failure to rein in Shiite-led security services accused of human rights abuses against Sunnis.

“We have some reservations, not on the person of Dr Jaafari, but on the performance of his government,” Sunni Arab politician Naseer Ani said. “We believe that his government’s performance on security and services was irresponsible.”

President Jalal Talabani, a frequent critic of Jaafari, threatened to take his 53-seat Kurdish coalition out of the new government unless the Shiites offer a post to the secular party of ex-prime minister Iyad Allawi, whom key Shiite politicians strongly oppose.

“We would have preferred a change of faces so as not to see a repeat of some of the problems,” Kurdish elder statesman Mahmoud Othman said. “I expect we will have some problems again.” Following his selection, Jaafari spoke in conciliatory tones about his Shiite rivals and about the need to build an inclusive government to serve all Iraqis. He promised to form a government “based on the grand interests of Iraq.” “Today’s victory is not that this one won or that one won,” Jaafari said. “It is a victory of the [Shiite] alliance with its unity and cool head.” However, Jaafari signalled a tough stand in coalition talks with the Sunni Arabs. Shiite officials had insisted the Sunnis support the new constitution and join the fight against Sunni-led insurgents if they want to join the coalition.

“The main basis for dialogue will primarily be the constitution, respect for the constitution and its contents after the people ratified and adopted it,” Jaafari said.

Iraqis approved the constitution in a referendum last October but many Sunni Arabs rejected it and demanded amendments on issues such as federalism and purges of former members of Saddam’s Sunni-dominated party.

Shiite officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said the 30 votes controlled by Sadr all went to Jaafari, enabling him to edge out Abdul-Mahdi, a leader of the main Shiite party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, known as SCIRI.

In Washington, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice sought to downplay the influence of Sadr in the choice, telling ABC’s “This Week with George Stephanopoulos” that there were “many forces” behind the choice of Jaafari.

Sadr’s decision to back Jaafari appeared primarily directed against Abdul-Mahdi’s party, his long-time rival for control of the Shiite heartland in the south.

“We see in Ibrahim Jaafari a man who is efficient and able to contain problems,” said Bahaa Aaraji, a senior Sadr official. “We have talked to him and spoken about the mistakes of the last government in total honesty.” Sadr’s movement holds three Cabinet posts in then outgoing government and has already made clear it wants more after a strong showing in the December elections.

A Western diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the selection of Jaafari was “an important step” in building a new government “but it is very far from finished.” Loss of the prime ministership could prompt SCIRI to insist on key security departments, especially the interior ministry, in the next government.

SCIRI controls the interior ministry now, and Sunnis claim its special commandos have systematically kidnapped and assassinated Sunni civilians under the cover of fighting the insurgents. Interior Minister Bayan Jabr denies the allegation.

US and United Nations officials have urged that the defence and interior ministries not be controlled by sectarian parties. Allawi, a secular Shiite, has been suggested for one of those posts, but Shiite parties strongly oppose him because he was prime minister during the US attack on Sadr’s militias in Najaf in 2004.

In an interview Sunday on CNN’s “Late Edition,” Allawi said the interior and defence ministries “should not be sectarian and should not go to people who are an extension of militias,” a reference to the Shiite parties.

Allawi said he was worried that rising sectarian tensions could plunge the country into civil war and that leaders must “work together in a spirit of national reconciliation and unity.” “Definitely there are a lot of strains in Iraq and there are lots of inflamed areas in Iraq,” he added.

Violence continued Sunday, with at least six people killed and 20 wounded in a spate of blasts and shootings in Baghdad and to the north. Insurgents fired a mortar into the heavily guarded Green Zone in central Baghdad, but there were no casualties.

Drive-by gunmen killed education ministry official Karim Selman Zaidi and three other people in separate shootings in Baghdad and north of the capital. A suicide bomber killed a woman and a policeman in Baghdad.

Police also found the bodies of at least five men who had been bound, repeatedly shot and dumped in different parts of Baghdad.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair, meanwhile, vowed a full investigation after British and Middle East TV stations aired a video purportedly showing British troops using batons and their fists to beat a group of young Iraqis in 2004.

The tape was obtained by the News of the World tabloid newspaper from a whistle-blower it did not identify.

“We take seriously any allegations of mistreatment and those will be investigated very fully indeed,” Blair said in South Africa.

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