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Two-man race goes to secret ballot after Shi'ites fail to pick leader

BAGHDAD -- Top Shi'ite politicians failed to reach a consensus yesterday on their nominee for prime minister, shifting the two-man race to a secret ballot and exposing divisions in the winning alliance.

After hours of closed-door meetings, members of the United Iraqi Alliance agreed to hold a secret ballot to choose between Ibrahim al-Jaafari and Ahmad Chalabi, most likely tomorrow, said Ali Hashim al-Youshaa, an alliance leader.

The contrast between the two candidates is stark and reveals a division within the clergy-endorsed alliance, made up of 10 major political parties and various allied smaller groups.

Jaafari, 58, is the leader of the religious Dawa Party, one of Iraq's oldest parties, known for its popularity and close ties to Iran. Although Jaafari is a moderate, his party's platform is conservative.

Chalabi, 58, a secular Shi'ite who left Iraq as a teenager, leads the Iraqi National Congress and had close ties to the Pentagon before falling out of favor last year after claims he passed intelligence information to Iran.

Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress is an umbrella for groups that included Iraqi exiles, Kurds, and Shi'ites. Much of the intelligence his group supplied on Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction programs failed to pan out.

Jaafari was considered the leading contender yesterday, though Chalabi's aides said their man had enough votes to win.

Both candidates were expected to present their political agendas to alliance members before the secret vote, Youshaa said. The 140 lawmakers who will represent the alliance in the National Assembly, plus eight allied lawmakers, will decide who will be prime minister, Youshaa said.

A close aide to Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the spiritual leader of Iraq's Shi'ite Muslims, said the alliance's leaders will visit the grand ayatollah's office in Najaf to get his blessing for their choice for prime minister. In the event they cannot agree, Sistani will make the final decision, said the aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The alliance took 48 percent of the vote in the Jan. 30 national elections, but a two-thirds majority of the assembly is required for the most important decisions, including selection of a prime minister. Kurdish parties, who won 26 percent, have apparently agreed to support the alliance's candidate for prime minister in return for the largely ceremonial presidency.

Sunni Arabs, who were favored under Saddam Hussein's rule, largely stayed away from the polls. But the Shi'ites must move cautiously if they want to reach out to the Sunnis to form an inclusive government and help quell the insurgency.

The US military reported yesterday that a US soldier assigned to the First Marine Expeditionary Force was killed in action Tuesday in western Iraq. In addition, the bodies of eight Iraqis described as collaborators with US forces were found in a desert area north of Baghdad.

In an interview Tuesday, Jaafari said that quelling the violence would be his first priority if he becomes prime minister, and that he would ask US troops to stay as long as they are needed. Despite the Dawa Party's stated desire to impose Islamic law in Iraq, Jaafari said he supports guarantees for individual freedoms and women's rights.

Chalabi has promised to cancel contracts the interim government has signed, form a strong intelligence service, and drop charges against Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who led two bloody revolts against US forces and is wanted for the murder of a rival cleric, said Ali Faisal of the Shi'ite Political Council.

Nevertheless, Hayder al-Mousawi, Chalabi's spokesman, said the differences were not major problem the Shi'ite alliance. ''No way is there a division inside the alliance. Everybody agreed on adhering to whatever results the internal elections will reach," he said.

If provisional results of the election stand, the alliance will have 140 seats in the 275-member National Assembly. Youshaa said three other party coalitions, which won a combined eight seats, have joined the alliance bloc.

Farid Ayar, electoral commission spokesman, said he expected the commission to certify the vote totals tomorrow, when the official allocation of seats in the National Assembly would be announced. The assembly will pick the president, two vice presidents, and draft a constitution. The interim government must set a timetable for installing the new government.

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