Iraqis say Bush won't accept 2nd term for al-Jaafari

Tensions between U.S., Shiite leaders rise

debate over prime minister contentious


BAGHDAD, Iraq --The U.S. ambassador has told Shiite officials that President Bush does not want the Iraqi prime minister to remain the country's leader in the next government, senior Shiite politicians said yesterday.

It is the first time the Americans have directly expressed a preference in the furious debate over the country's top job, the politicians said, and it is inflaming tensions between the Americans and some Shiite leaders.

The ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad, told the head of the main Shiite political bloc at a meeting Saturday to pass on a "personal message from President Bush" to the interim prime minister, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, said Redha Jowad Taki, a Shiite member of Parliament who was at the meeting.

Khalilzad said Bush "doesn't want, doesn't support, doesn't accept" al-Jaafari to be the next prime minister, according to Taki, a senior aide to Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, the head of the Shiite bloc. It was the first "clear and direct message" from the Americans on a specific candidate for prime minister, Taki said.

The Shiite bloc, which won a plurality in the parliamentary election in December, nominated al-Jaafari last month to retain his post for four more years.

A spokeswoman for the U.S. Embassy confirmed that Khalilzad met with Hakim on Saturday, but declined to comment on what was said.

"The decisions about the choice of the prime minister are entirely up to the Iraqis," said the spokeswoman, Elizabeth Colton. "This will be an Iraqi decision."

In Washington, the State Department said it would not comment on diplomatic conversations, but Adam Ereli, the deputy spokesman, reiterated American support for "a government of national unity with strong leadership that can unify all Iraqis."

The Americans have harshly criticized the al-Jaafari government in recent months for supporting Shiite militias that have been fomenting sectarian violence and pushing Iraq closer to full-scale civil war.

Khalilzad has sharpened his attacks in the last week, saying the militias are now killing more people than the Sunni Arab-led insurgency. American officials have expressed growing concern that al-Jaafari is incapable of reining in the private armies, especially since Muqtada al-Sadr, the anti-American cleric who leads the most volatile militia, is al-Jaafari's most powerful backer.

Haider al-Ubady, a spokesman for al-Jaafari, said the prime minister had received the ambassador's message and accused the Americans of trying to subvert Iraqi sovereignty.

"How can they do this?" Ubady said. "An ambassador telling a sovereign country what to do is unacceptable."

Tensions between Shiite leaders and the U.S. government, which had been rising for months, boiled over after an assault Sunday night by American and Iraqi forces on a Shiite mosque compound in northern Baghdad.

Shiite leaders say at least 17 civilians were killed in the battle, most of them members of a Shiite political party. American commanders say the soldiers fought insurgents.

The reported American pressure over al-Jaafari's nomination is another sign of White House impatience over the deadlocked talks to form a new government. American officials say the impasse has created a power vacuum that has encouraged lawlessness and low-level civil conflict.

The nomination has become one of the most contentious issues in those talks, with the main Kurdish, Sunni Arab and secular blocs calling for the Shiites to replace al-Jaafari. On Monday, Shiite leaders suspended their participation in the negotiations, saying they were enraged by the assault on the mosque complex.

At least 21 people were abducted in four separate incidents in Baghdad yesterday, in the biggest wave of kidnappings in a month, an Interior Ministry official said. In one incident, 15 men in Iraqi army uniforms dragged at least six people from a money exchange shop and stole nearly $60,000. In two other cases, people wearing Interior Ministry commando uniforms snatched victims from two electronics shops.

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