Longtime nemesis of Hussein is named as president of Iraq

Ousted leader watches on TV from cell as Kurd promises democracy for all

April 07, 2005|By Edmund Sanders | Edmund Sanders,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BAGHDAD, Iraq - Almost two years after the fall of Baghdad to U.S. forces, Iraq's new democratically elected National Assembly named a former Kurdish resistance leader as the nation's president.

Deposed President Saddam Hussein watched a videotape of the televised proceedings from his jail cell in Baghdad as his longtime nemesis, Jalal Talabani, leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, accepted the largely ceremonial post and urged his countrymen to end sectarian and ethnic divisions.

During his rule, Hussein brutally repressed ethnic Kurds and condemned Talabani as a "criminal."

"After being liberated from the most horrific dictatorship in history, our aim now is to achieve the democratic goals that the Iraqi people have struggled for," Talabani told assembly members. He is the first Kurdish president of modern Iraq.

Two Arab deputies will join Talabani in the presidency council as vice presidents: Ghazi Ajil Yawer, a Sunni Muslim who had served as interim president since last summer, and Finance Minister Adel Abdul Mehdi, a Shiite Muslim.

"This is the new Iraq," said Hachim Hassani, the recently elected speaker of the National Assembly, "where a Kurdish citizen is elected president of the country and a sitting Arab president will become his deputy. What more could the world want from us?"

The three men are scheduled to be sworn in today. It has been announced that Ibrahim al-Jaafari, head of the Shiite-dominated Islamic Dawa Party, will be named prime minister. Cabinet ministers are expected to be named by next week.

Hussein and about a dozen of his top deputies were asked if they wanted to watch an edited clip of the proceeding, including the nomination and Talabani's acceptance speech, said Bakhtiar Amin, Iraq's human rights minister. Hussein watched alone from his cell, and the others viewed together in a larger room, Amin said.

Prison observers told Amin that Hussein and his cohorts appeared upset.

"They realized that their era has come to an end," Amin said. "And it gave them a feeling that their trials are coming closer."

A report on Hussein's reaction will be released today.

Hussein is awaiting trial for alleged war crimes. Those include charges linked to the 1988 Anfal military campaign, in which thousands of Kurds were gassed with chemical weapons. Talabani played a key role in publicizing the atrocity to the outside world.

The ascension of a Kurd to the presidency would have been unthinkable two years ago and was even considered a long shot shortly before the Iraqi elections two months ago. But Kurds, who represent about 15 percent of the Iraqi population, won about one-quarter of the 275 assembly seats in the Jan. 30 balloting.

Yesterday's election of Talabani, 71, and the two deputies was arranged weeks ago in a deal between the Kurds and the leading Shiite coalition, United Iraqi Alliance, which won slightly more than half of the assembly seats. However, the final announcement was delayed because of a dispute among Sunni Arabs over whom they wanted named as one of the vice presidents.

With the new government set to take over as early as today, the role of interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi remains unclear. Although his slate won about 40 seats, Allawi was not offered a top post in the new government. He has skipped the past two National Assembly sessions.

"That issue is still not settled," said Hussain Shahristani, who was elected a deputy speaker of the National Assembly.

In the Kurdish city of Sulaymaniyah, residents greeted Talabani's victory by hanging his picture around the city and dancing and singing at street celebrations. "Now we can say that this is really the end of one era and the start of another," said Omer Fattah, prime minister of the northern province. Talabani, who battled Hussein's rule for decades, will be in a prime position to assist Kurds with their drive to win control over the city of Kirkuk and retain some measure of self-rule under Iraq's new constitution.

During his speech yesterday, Talabani made passing references to Kurdish issues, focusing instead on questions of adopting Islamic beliefs into the law and removing U.S. troops from Iraq.

President Bush called Talabani's election a "momentous" step.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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