Two leading candidates vying for post of Iraqi prime minister

Chalabi, one-time favorite of Pentagon, in race with moderate Islamist Jafari

February 18, 2005|By Patrick J. McDonnell | Patrick J. McDonnell,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BAGHDAD, Iraq - Iraqi authorities ratified national elections results yesterday that gave a slim parliamentary majority for a Shiite-led coalition as the victors wrangled about a choice for a future prime minister among two leading candidates.

Ahmad Chalabi, the one-time Pentagon favorite who had a falling-out with Washington, suggested that he had the votes within the winning coalition to snare the top job but said a decision probably would be put off until at least Monday. He is said to be in a race with the presumed front-runner, Ibrahim Jafari, a moderate Islamist and soft-spoken physician.

"There will be no sour grapes" on the part of the loser, Chalabi vowed yesterday in an interview at his heavily guarded home in this city's upscale Mansour district. "Myself and Dr. Jafari are friends, and we will work together."

Both Chalabi and Jafari ran in the Jan. 30 elections on a list of candidates under the banner of the United Iraqi Alliance, a grouping of mostly Shiite Muslim religious parties and individuals. Results of the election were announced Sunday, but electoral rules provided several days for officials to field complaints before the results were ratified.

The alliance was allocated 140 of the 275 seats in the transitional National Assembly, which is responsible for writing a national constitution. An ethnic Kurdish slate that finished second received 75 seats; 40 went to a party led by interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi. Nine smaller parties shared the remaining 20 seats. Allawi seems likely to be replaced as prime minister by Jafari or Chalabi.

Jafari, a longtime exile whose Dawa party has deep roots in Iraq, was a natural contender for the top spot. But the rise of the wily Chalabi, also a onetime exile who was out of Iraq for more than four decades until his return in 2003, has injected an element of suspense into a race being played out mostly behind closed doors.

"Chalabi is not to be underestimated," said one Western diplomat. "But you still have to consider him the dark horse."

Members of the Shiite alliance have been in intensive meetings in recent days trying to decide on candidates for top government jobs. Nominees for key posts - including the prime minister, his Cabinet, the president and two vice presidents - are expected to be chosen as a package and presented to the National Assembly together.

The assembly is not expected to convene until agreement has been reached on who gets the top posts. The process could take days or weeks, observers say.

Yesterday, Chalabi appeared to savor the renewed celebrity at his sprawling compound. Television crews came in and out, and he spoke on topics broad and wide. "I am a very good friend of America," Chalabi declared when asked about his tiff with his longtime patrons in Washington. "I did not change. They changed."

U.S. authorities, who broke with him last year, have cited a range of aggravations, including Chalabi's alleged provision of secret information to Iran; his alleged involvement in a counterfeiting case here; and his provision of inaccurate information about Iraq's supposed weapons of mass destruction before the U.S. invasion in March 2003.

Chalabi denied any wrongdoing. The counterfeiting case was dropped, he noted, and no formal charges ever emerged in the Iran case. He has also defended his pre-war depiction of Saddam Hussein's arsenal.

"I became, through no fault of my own, a victim of ... American political considerations," Chalabi said. "It happens when the United States interferes in foreign countries."

Chalabi's aides indicated he had the votes within the Shiite alliance to garner the prime minister's post in a secret-ballot tally expected next week. Jafari, in comments after the official election results were released, said he believed the decision should be based on discussions, not a formal vote.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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