Iraq coalition to vote on keeping its candidate

Al-Jaafari asks Shiite bloc to reconsider his nomination after trying to hold on to it


BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Beleaguered Iraqis were given new hope that the parliament they elected four months ago would finally form a long-term government, after acting Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari loosened his grip on the top job yesterday.

Al-Jaafari's fractious Shiite coalition will vote today on whether to keep him as its candidate for prime minister or choose a fresh face who might win wider backing from Iraq's disparate ethnic and religious groups.

Al-Jaafari has become a polarizing figure whose determination to hang onto the Shiite nomination despite equally stubborn opposition has frozen the process of finding a power-sharing formula and improving conditions for eventual U.S. troop withdrawal.

The political paralysis has contributed to the explosion of street fighting in the past few weeks, notably a murder spree between Shiite and Sunni militias and gangs.

But al-Jaafari's resistance to stepping aside cracked yesterday. In a statement - followed several hours later by a rambling, nationally televised speech - he asked the umbrella of Shiite parties that emerged from last December's elections as the country's dominant political force to reconsider his candidacy.

Al-Jaafari promised to "not be an obstacle" if they no longer wanted him as their candidate.

The Shiite bloc immediately seized upon his offer to announce that they would hold a vote on al-Jaafari's candidacy today, and find an alternative if he was not reconfirmed.

"Jaafari has left the decision about his candidacy with the alliance, which means he is no longer insisting on the post," Jawad al-Maliki, a senior member of al-Jaafari's Dawa party, said at a news conference in Baghdad after reading al-Jaafari's statement. "Now it will be the alliance which will decide."

Al-Jaafari had faced concerted resistance from minority Kurds and Sunni Arabs from the start of his candidacy, which he won in February by one vote from the 130-member nominating forum. More recently, he resisted backroom nudges from U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and the vocal impatience at political stalemate expressed by President Bush.

But al-Jaafari apparently relented after members of his own coalition and prominent Shiites began breaking ranks - among them, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

Critics alternately accuse al-Jaafari of being too weak and too sectarian as prime minister. He angered Kurds by excluding them from sensitive discussions with neighboring Turkey on Kurdish affairs. And Sunnis blamed him for failing to curb the rising number of Shiite attacks on Sunni targets and for extrajudicial killings by members of the Interior Ministry's police forces.

But al-Jaafari had resisted entreaties to withdraw his name. In his televised address, he scolded other politicians who criticized him in the news media but who complimented him in private for the job he was doing.

His surprise reversal of spirit came just hours before the National Assembly was scheduled to meet for the second time since Iraqis defied insurgents and participated in national elections last December. Dawa members said al-Jaafari bent to pressure from within the party, which feared that standing by him in the face of the opposition could cost the party its claim to the post.

Instead, al-Jaafari's invitation to revote on his candidacy offered the prospect that a four-month-long dispute over the prime minister's post could be resolved as soon as tomorrow, when parliament is again scheduled to try to convene for a session.

"Hopefully we will have news that will make everyone happy on Saturday," said Jalal Talabani, Iraq's president, who has been a key figure in trying to herd the feuding groups toward an agreement.

"We have agreed on basics," he said, promising a "friendly session" and the beginnings of a national unity government. "What left is to put the final touches."

Most observers suggested the alternative to al-Jaafari, if he is rejected by the United Iraqi Alliance, would come from within the top ranks of his Dawa party, with expectations falling generally on either al-Malaki or Adil al-Adeeb, another senior party member. Both spent years in exile after Saddam Hussein began a purge of Dawa members in the early 1980s. Neither carries great political clout among ordinary Iraqis.

But while neither man would represent a move away from Dawa's hostility to the U.S. occupation and wariness of Iranian meddling in Iraq, many say the new leadership might be acceptable to Sunni and Shiite parties simply because they are not al-Jaafari.

Bruce Wallace writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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