Pro-U.S. Shiite is chosen as Iraqi interim prime minister

Governing Council move pre-empts U.N.'s envoy

May 29, 2004|By Liz Sly | Liz Sly,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

BAGHDAD - Iyad Allawi, a pro-American secular Shiite leader who spent nearly 30 years in exile in London, was picked yesterday to be prime minister of Iraq's interim government.

Allawi, a former member of the Baath Party who fell out with Saddam Hussein in 1976 and formed an opposition movement called the Iraqi National Accord, was selected at a meeting of Iraq's U.S.-appointed Governing Council.

The chief U.S. administrator in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer III, turned up at the end of the closed-door council session and shook Allawi's hand, affirming the selection of the first of five fiercely contested top positions in the new interim government.

Allawi's nomination appeared to pre-empt the formal selection process launched three weeks ago by the United Nations' special envoy to Iraq, Lakhdar Brahimi, who is supposed to be responsible for naming the members of the new government. But U.S. officials said they expected U.N. approval to be a formality because of the council's support.

"I think it's over. Iyad Allawi is going to be prime minister in the interim government," said a senior U.S. administration official in Baghdad, speaking on condition of anonymity.

After a long quest for a suitable leader, he said, "it became clear that none could get together a coalition that was as widespread and popular as Allawi."

U.N. caught off-guard

In New York, U.N. spokesman Fred Eckhard cautioned that Brahimi had not reached a final decision and acknowledged that the United Nations was caught off-guard by the manner in which the prime minister was named. Brahimi had intended the entire slate of appointments to be announced simultaneously in coming days, he said.

Nonetheless, he said, Brahimi "respects" the decision of the council and will work with Allawi toward finding candidates for the rest of the government, which is to assume responsibility for running Iraq when the U.S. administration transfers power June 30.

"I assume that this choice of today will hold, but the process isn't over yet," he said.

In Baghdad, Brahimi's spokesman, Ahmad Fawzi, said that while Brahimi had made no final decision yet on any of the candidates, he is "perfectly comfortable with the way the process is progressing."

As a Shiite and a former member of the Baath Party, Allawi is viewed as a consensus candidate whose background might help bridge the differences between Iraq's Shiite majority, which dominated opposition to Hussein's regime, and the mainly Sunni former Baathists, who supported Hussein and feel excluded from the current political process.

His Iraqi National Accord group includes several former senior Baath Party generals who defected from the Iraqi army. For many years they received funding from the CIA and the British intelligence agency MI6, and Allawi was regarded as the favored protege of the U.S. State Department.

But his group never numbered more than a few hundred people, and under the rigid censorship of Baath Party rule, few Iraqis had heard of him when the regime collapsed last year.

With anti-American sentiments intensifying, Allawi's association with the U.S. government could make it difficult for him to win broad-based support among ordinary Iraqis who yearn for greater sovereignty but doubt that any U.S.-backed government will be genuinely independent.

"Whether rightly or wrongly, most people in Iraq consider him a party to the American war in Iraq," said Wamid Nadhmi, a political scientist at Baghdad University.

"Unfortunately, with due respect to him as a person, I don't think he will have credibility."

The manner of Allawi's appointment, which was apparently pushed ahead of the U.N. process by U.S. authorities, will also cast doubt on his leadership, he said.

"If we are to judge the future government by the name of this prime minister, I think it is to be considered an extremely pro-American government," he said.

In the mosques of Baghdad yesterday, even moderate Shiite clerics preached against accepting the legitimacy of any new Iraqi government.

"The Americans claim that there is going to be full sovereignty in Iraq but, practically speaking, it will be incomplete sovereignty," said Sheik Sayed Mohammed al-Haideri, who is affiliated with the top Shiite religious leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. "The Iraqi people must reject this diluted form of sovereignty."

More posts to be filled

Allawi's is the first of the five senior positions that will be decided ahead of the June 30 transfer of power from the U.S. occupation authority to an Iraqi government. In the coming days, Brahimi is expected to settle on other names for the posts of president, two vice presidents and a deputy prime minister. In addition, there will be as many as 30 positions in a new Cabinet.

The selection process has generated intense competition among those Iraqi leaders who have associated themselves with the U.S. occupation authority, as well as criticism from those who remain outside it, complicating the search for an acceptable candidate.

Brahimi will also have to take into consideration Iraq's ethnic mix in drawing up the slate of candidates. With a Shiite now identified for the position of prime minister, it is expected that a Sunni will be named as president.

The Kurdish community is holding out for one of the top slots.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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