Surprising Choice for Premier of Iraq Reflects U.S. Influence

By WARREN HOGE and STEVEN R. WEISMAN
Published: May 29, 2004

UNITED NATIONS, May 28 - After turning to the United Nations to shore up its failing effort to fashion a new government in Baghdad, the United States ended up Friday with a choice for prime minister certain to be seen more as an American candidate than one of the United Nations or the Iraqis themselves.

The man chosen to be prime minister, Iyad Alawi, is the secretary general of the Iraqi National Accord, an exile group that has received funds from the Central Intelligence Agency. His ties with the C.I.A., and his closeness to the United States could become an issue in a country where public opinion has grown almost universally hostile to the Americans.

The announcement of Dr. Alawi's selection appeared to surprise several at the United Nations.

"When we first heard the news today, we thought that the Iraqi Governing Council had hijacked the process," said a senior United Nations official, referring to the American-picked body that voted to recommend Dr. Alawi earlier on Friday.

A senior State Department official in Washington, as well as a senior American official in Baghdad, said Lakhdar Brahimi, the United Nations envoy asked by the United States to choose an interim government for Iraq, had indeed selected Dr. Alawi. The State Department official suggested that the Iraqi council had merely ratified the selection after the fact in order to make it seem that the council was the kingmaker.

According to other reports, Dr. Alawi appeared on Mr. Brahimi's short list of candidates, but it was unclear whether the selection of Dr. Alawi had Mr. Brahimi's wholehearted support.

Statements from the United Nations seemingly confirmed the idea that Mr. Brahimi was merely bowing to the wishes of the others.

"Mr. Brahimi respects the decision and says he can work with this person," Fred Eckhard, the spokesman for Secretary General Kofi Annan, said in response to a barrage of skeptical questioning. Asked what Mr. Annan's view was, Mr. Eckhard said: "The secretary general respects the decision, as I said Mr. Brahimi does. `Respect' is a very carefully chosen word."

Some time later, perhaps because of the skepticism that comment engendered, a less circumspect statement was issued in the name of Ahmad Fawzi, Mr. Brahimi's press spokesman, saying: "Let there be no misunderstanding. Mr. Brahimi is perfectly comfortable with how the process is proceeding thus far."

In a telephone interview from Baghdad, Mr. Brahimi refused to discuss the selection of Dr. Alawi. "I don't want to go back saying who is good and who is bad," he said.

But in a hint that the selection process had not gone exactly as planned, Mr. Brahimi added, "You know, sometimes people think I am a free agent out here, that I have a free hand to do whatever I want." He noted that he had been asked to take on the job in a letter to Mr. Annan from the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq and the Iraqi Governing Council.

United Nations officials said Dr. Alawi had been on Mr. Brahimi's list of acceptable candidates for prime minister, although he was not his first choice. The officials said Dr. Alawi had ranked third on the list.

The United Nations is wary of having the world organization or Mr. Brahimi himself appear too close to the United States. At the same time, Mr. Brahimi must balance many competing interests as he moves between the American occupying powers and the Iraqis.

Mr. Brahimi said he felt that regardless of how the selection of Dr. Alawi had emerged, it would free him to proceed rapidly with a host of choices he had settled on for other ranking government positions.

"This is the first name to come out, but there is still the rest of the government to complete," he said. "All of this is going to take place in the next few days, and I am very, very much involved in this process."

Among the jobs he has to fill and for which his aides say he now has names ready to go are a president, two vice presidents and 26 cabinet members for the new government, the members of a preparatory committee planning a national council of Mr. Brahimi's design for a post-transition and the officials for an electoral commission.

The choices could become known as early as Sunday, aides said.

Mr. Fawzi said Mr. Brahimi and Dr. Alawi had met often. "His name came up frequently in the wide-ranging consultations that Brahimi conducted," Mr. Fawzi said in a telephone interview from the Netherlands, where he had gone from Baghdad on personal business.

United Nations officials said any misgivings that Mr. Brahimi had about Dr. Alawi were not about the man himself but about his past associations and how they might play with the Iraqi public, because of Dr. Alawi's ties with the C.I.A.

"Let's see what the Iraqi street has to say about this name," Mr. Eckhard said.

Members of the United Nations Security Council, which this week began negotiating a new resolution for post-transition Iraq, had been expecting Mr. Brahimi to deliver the names for a new government by the end of the month. They had also been told that the names would be made public as a group, not in the sporadic and individual manner that Dr. Alawi's name emerged Friday.

Asked about those expectations, Mr. Eckhard said, "This is not the way we expected this to happen, no, but the Iraqis seem to agree on this name, and if they do, Mr. Brahimi is ready to work with him."

France, Germany, Russia and China, all opponents of the Iraq war a year ago, complained Tuesday that the draft resolution submitted by Britain and the United States had left unclear the crucial relationships between the new government, the Iraqi armed forces and the United States-led multinational force that will remain in Iraq.

In response, the American and British sponsors of the resolution promised that the names would come in time for the Council to factor them and their views into its deliberations.

Mr. Brahimi said he agreed wholeheartedly with the Security Council members' wishes. "The Security Council is right in saying that this new government must take part in the discussions on the resolution," he said.

Warren Hoge reported from the United Nations for this article, and Steven R. Weisman from Washington.