Leading Shiite Party Selects Nominee for Iraqi Prime Minister


New York Times

February 22, 2005

BAGHDAD, Iraq, Feb. 22 - The interim vice president of Iraq, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, was chosen as his Shiite bloc's candidate for prime minister today after Ahmad Chalabi dropped out of the running, senior officials of Mr. al-Jaafari's party said.

Mr. al-Jaafari's selection means that it is possible he will lead Iraq's first democratically elected government in 50 years. But he first has to be approved by a coalition that will probably include the Kurds, and he must then be approved by a two-thirds majority of the newly elected National Assembly.

Mr. al-Jaafari's only other likely opponent for the post is expected to be the interim prime minister, Ayad Allawi, who was nominated for the job by his group, the Iraqi List, which received only 14 percent of the vote, or 40 seats, in the election.

Pressure from within the ranks of the United Iraqi Alliance, which won the most votes in the Jan. 30 election, forced the withdrawal of Mr. Chalabi, a onetime Pentagon favorite, according to Hussein al-Moussawi from the Shiite Political Council, an umbrella group for 38 Shiite parties.

"They wanted him to withdraw," Mr. al-Moussawi said. "They didn't want to push the vote to a secret ballot,."

The 140 members of the council were to put the decision between Mr. Chalabi and Mr. al-Jaafari to a secret ballot by the end of today.

The decision came after three days of round-the-clock negotiations by senior members of the clergy-backed alliance, which emerged from the election with a 140-seat majority in the 275-member National Assembly, or Parliament.

The office of Abdel Aziz al-Hakim, leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, or SCIRI, confirmed that Mr. Chalabi had withdrawn his bid to be prime minister.

"Chalabi announced his withdrawal and everyone agreed on al-Jaafari," said Haytham al Husaini, a top aide to Mr. al-Hakim. "Then Chalabi declared his support to al-Jaafari." SCIRI, the main group making up the alliance, tried for days to persuade Mr. Chalabi to quit the race, some of its senior officials said.

The United Iraqi Alliance took 48 percent of the vote last month but needs to form a coalition with smaller parties to form the new government. A two-thirds majority of the National Assembly is required for the most important decisions, including selection of a prime minister.

The assembly will also draft a constitution.

Kurdish parties, which won 26 percent of the votes, have indicated in the past that they would support the Shiite candidate for prime minister in return for support for their candidate for the largely ceremonial presidency.

A date for Parliament's opening has not been set.

The conservative Mr. al-Jaafari, a 58-year-old family doctor, is the main spokesman for the Islamic Dawa Party, which waged a bloody campaign against Saddam Hussein's regime in the late 1970's. The campaign was crushed in 1982 and Dawa based itself in Iran.

In an interview last week, Mr. al-Jaafari said the most pressing issues for the nation were improving security and improving the standards of its social services. He also said calling for the immediate withdrawal of coalition troops would be a "mistake" given the lack of security in Iraq.

The secular Mr. Chalabi is a former exile leader who heavily promoted the idea that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. He later fell out with some key members of the Bush administration over allegations that he passed secrets to Iran.