Shiite leader appointed as Iraq's prime minister

Al-Jaafari has two weeks to announce his Cabinet

April 08, 2005|By Edmund Sanders | Edmund Sanders,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BAGHDAD, Iraq - Iraq's new Kurdish president named a fellow foe of Saddam Hussein as prime minister yesterday, appointing the leader of Iraq's oldest Shiite Muslim party, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, to the powerful post.

President Jalal Talabani's selection of al-Jaafari ends nearly 10 weeks of political bickering among Shiite and Sunni Arabs and Kurds since the nation's Jan. 30 elections. Al-Jaafari's administration will be the third Iraqi government since Baghdad fell to U.S. forces two years ago.

"We have done it," said a beaming outgoing Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih as he emerged from yesterday's proceedings of the National Assembly. During the session, Talabani, who was elected president Wednesday by lawmakers, took the oath of office.

Now, a reshuffled mix of many of the same politicians who have been in previous administrations will focus on drafting a new constitution and holding another election to replace themselves, perhaps as early as December.

Al-Jaafari, who heads the Islamic Dawa Party, has two weeks to announce his Cabinet but is expected to move more quickly.

"Today represents a big step forward for Iraq and a big responsibility for me," he told reporters after Talabani's inauguration.

Al-Jaafari spent more than 20 years in exile, including long stints in Iran, where he led a Shiite campaign against Hussein. Though his party is seen as advocating a conservative brand of Islam and has been accused of resorting to bombings and violence to achieve its aims, al-Jaafari has a quiet, intellectual style.

Allawi's role uncertain

Among the well-wishers yesterday was interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, who had been noticeably absent from the past two National Assembly sessions.

During a private meeting earlier yesterday, Allawi offered his resignation to the new government, officials said.

The U.S.-backed Allawi, a secular Shiite who had hoped to continue as prime minister and whose slate won 40 seats in the 275-member assembly, arrived at the session shortly before it began.

He declined to speak to reporters and kept a low profile during the ceremony. On Wednesday, his administration came under sharp attack by assembly members, who vowed to investigate allegations of corruption.

Allawi's "slate will participate [in the new government], but I don't know if he himself will actually serve in a post or not," said Jawad al-Maliki, a chief Shiite negotiator and member of the assembly.

At a ceremony inside the capital's fortified Green Zone, Talabani stood before Iraq's chief judge and recited a short oath to "work with devotion to preserve the independence and sovereignty of Iraq."

Minutes later, former President Ghazi al-Yawer, a Sunni Arab, and former finance minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi, a Shiite, were sworn in as vice presidents.

Afterward, members of the new government stood together on the stage, smiling broadly and shaking hands, as assembly members stood for an ovation.

Grumbles over slight

Talabani made no mention of al-Jaafari or his appointment as prime minister during his inaugural address.

After the assembly adjourned and television cameras left the room, Talabani hastily returned to the podium to announce that he had asked al-Jaafari to form a government.

Colleagues say Talabani simply forgot, but some Shiite assembly members grumbled that it might have been an intentional slight, reflecting hard-fought negotiations between Shiites and Kurds in recent weeks.

Al-Jaafari's Shiite slate, the United Iraqi Alliance, captured a slim majority of seats in the assembly, and Talabani's Kurdish grouping came in second. The election put control of the Iraqi legislature in the hands of the two main groups repressed during Hussein's regime.

Talabani's inaugural address reiterated the themes of his acceptance speech. He called upon Iraqis to unite to rebuild their country and combat terrorism.

He reached across ethnic and sectarian lines to thank Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, who tacitly backed al-Jaafari's slate, for insisting on Jan. 30 elections. And he called on Iraq's Sunni Arab minority, which was favored under Hussein and largely boy- cotted the election, to join the new government.

For al-Jaafari, the next challenge will be cobbling together a Cabinet of qualified ministers to serve under him within the constraints of postelection negotiations.

Power-sharing efforts

Eager to avoid leaving any party or ethnic group feeling so disenfranchised that it might form an opposition party, the new government is divvying up political posts largely along ethnic and religious lines.

Many of the top ministries have been allocated. Shiites will take Interior, Kurds will keep Foreign Affairs and Sunnis will receive one of the top five ministries, possibly Defense.

The coveted Oil Ministry is still up for grabs, but Shiite leaders say they are likely to control it.

Next, the government will turn to drafting a constitution. The process is supposed to be complete by Aug. 15, but could, by law, be postponed for six months.

After the constitution is complete, Iraqi voters must approve it. Once voters accept it, another parliamentary election will be held under the ratified constitution.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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