Shiites agree on choice for premier

Hopes for ending Iraq's political paralysis grow


BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Shiite political leaders agreed on a new nominee for prime minister yesterday, raising hopes for an imminent end to the two-month stalemate that has paralyzed Iraqi politics.

The United Iraqi Alliance announced that it had chosen Jawad al-Maliki as its candidate to head the next government. He would replace incumbent Ibrahim al-Jaafari, whose refusal to relinquish the post had emerged as the biggest obstacle to the formation of a new government.

Sunni and Kurdish political leaders who had strenuously opposed al-Jaafari's candidacy indicated that they would accept al-Maliki, meaning that the first posts in the government could be filled when the Iraqi parliament meets today.

"We will support his candidacy for prime minister, and we have good relations with him," said Alaa Mekki, a top official in the Sunni Iraqi Islamic Party. "We believe he is the most suitable candidate for the time being."

"We have nothing against this choice, and we are very happy that finally they have changed their candidate," said Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish legislator. "This change will help the political process and very much help the formation of the new government."

Al-Maliki was chosen by consensus during closed-door meetings held by legislators of the Shiite alliance, averting a potentially divisive vote within the coalition, which won the most seats in the national legislature in December's elections.

It remains unclear whether al-Maliki will be able to succeed where al-Jaafari has failed in uniting Iraqis behind their government, quelling the violence and reviving the stalled reconstruction effort.

Al-Maliki belongs to the same political party as al-Jaafari, shares his Shiite Islamist ideology and has frequently acted as his spokesman. Al-Maliki read to reporters Thursday the statement announcing al-Jaafari's willingness to step aside if his Shiite coalition partners chose a different candidate.

Like al-Jaafari, al-Maliki went into exile in the first years of the Saddam Hussein era, fleeing the crackdown on the Islamist Dawa Party in the late 1970s and early 1980s, during which tens of thousands of Shiites were executed or imprisoned.

Hussein is being tried on charges of crimes against humanity, some of them stemming from the crackdown on Dawa after party members tried to assassinate him in 1982.

Al-Maliki, who claimed responsibility on behalf of Dawa for a 1996 assassination attempt against Hussein's son Uday, was the party's political representative in Damascus, Syria, before returning after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.

In contrast with al-Jaafari, who is known for rambling speeches and for quoting poetry, the plain-spoken al-Maliki is regarded as a political operator who some officials say could prove a more effective leader.

"They are different personalities," said Mekki, the Sunni politician. "Maliki is the real administrator, the manager of Al Dawa, and Jaafari wasn't the one controlling the situation. We appreciate that Maliki will be more likely to control things and manage the situation more efficiently."

Al-Jaafari secured the nomination of the Shiite coalition in February by one vote, after a bruising internal struggle in which the radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr emerged as kingmaker by instructing his supporters to vote for al-Jaafari.

After al-Sadr's militia began flexing its muscles on the streets of Baghdad, concerns grew about al-Jaafari's ability to take on the Shiite militias, which are considered as much a threat to Iraq's stability as the Sunni insurgency.

As recently as Wednesday, al-Jaafari vowed that he would "absolutely not" step aside, despite pressure from many Iraqis, the U.S. Embassy and President Bush.

But less than 24 hours later he did, after the United Nations appealed to Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the supreme Shiite religious leader, to intervene in an effort to end the stalemate.

Liz Sly writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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