Iraq premier rejects U.S. pressure to resign


BAGHDAD, Iraq --Facing growing pressure from the Bush administration to step down, Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari vigorously asserted his right to stay in office yesterday and warned the Americans against undue interference in Iraq's political process.

Jaafari also defended his recent political alliance with radical anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, now the prime minister's most powerful backer. He said in an interview that Sadr and his thousands-strong militia are a fact of life in Iraq and need to be accepted into mainstream politics.

Jaafari said he would work to fold the country's myriad militias into the official security forces and ensure that recruits and top security ministers abandon their ethnic or sectarian loyalties.

The existence of militias has emerged as the greatest source of contention between U.S. officials and Shiite leaders such as Jaafari, with the American ambassador arguing in the past week that militias are killing more people than the Sunni Arab-led insurgency.

Dozens of bodies, garrotted or executed with gunshots to the head, turn up almost daily in Baghdad, fueling sectarian tensions that are pushing Iraq closer to full-scale civil war.

The embattled Jaafari made his remarks in an hourlong interview with The New York Times at his home, a Saddam Hussein-era palace with an artificial lake in the heart of the fortified Green Zone. He spoke calmly, relaxing in a black pinstripe suit in a ground-floor office lined with books such as the multivolume The World of Civilizations.

"There was a stand from both the American government and President Bush to promote a democratic policy and protect its interests," he said, sipping from a cup of boiled water mixed with saffron. "But now there's concern among the Iraqi people that the democratic process is being threatened.

"The source of this is that some American figures have made statements that interfere with the results of the democratic process," he said. "These reservations began when the biggest bloc in Parliament chose its candidate for prime minister."

At the center of a deadlock over forming a new government, the main Kurdish, Sunni Arab and secular blocs in the 275-member Parliament staunchly oppose the Shiite bloc's nomination of the bookish, soft-spoken Jaafari for prime minister.

Senior Shiite politicians said Monday that the U.S. ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad, had weighed in over the weekend, telling the leader of the Shiite bloc that Bush did not want Jaafari as prime minister.

That was the first time the Americans had openly expressed a preference for the post, the politicians said, and it showed the Bush administration's acute impatience over the stagnant political process.

Relations between Shiite leaders and the Americans have been fraying for months. They reached a crisis point after a bloody assault on a Shiite mosque compound Sunday night by U.S. and Iraqi forces.

Jaafari said in the interview that Ambassador Khalilzad had visited him Tuesday morning but had not indicated that Jaafari should abandon his job. The two had spoken about forming the government, he said.

American reactions to the political process can be seen as either supporting or interfering in Iraqi decisions, said Jaafari, the head of the Islamic Dawa Party and a former exile in Iran and London.

"When it takes the form of interference, it makes the Iraqi people worried," he said. "For that reason, the Iraqi people want to ensure that these reactions stay in a positive frame and do not cross over into interference that damages the results of the democratic process."

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