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Iraq coalition backs incumbent leader

Divided Shi'ites settle on Jaafari

BAGHDAD -- Ibrahim al-Jaafari, the soft-spoken Shi'ite doctor who has led Iraq for the past year, won his coalition's nomination for prime minister by a single vote yesterday, setting himself on course to head the country's first full-term government since the fall of Saddam Hussein.

Over a four-year term, Jaafari will be expected to confront the vast challenges Iraq faces -- a crumbling infrastructure and rampant violence -- despite his failure to solve these problems during his time in office as the leader of Iraq's interim government.

The decision represents a setback for some Iraqis and US officials who would have preferred a more secular leader.

The choice of Jaafari came after days of wrangling within the coalition of Shi'ite religious parties that won the largest share of seats in the December parliamentary elections.

The leaders of the United Iraqi Alliance had hoped to resolve the contest between Jaafari and Adil Abdul-Mahdi, a secular economist, by consensus, but ended up deciding the matter by a 64-to-63 vote. The popular and fiercely anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr threw his support behind Jaafari's Dawa Party, tipping the balance against Abdul-Mahdi's Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq. Jaafari then garnered the support of enough independent voters to eke out a narrow victory.

Because it will hold 130 seats in parliament -- far more than competing Sunni Arab, Kurdish, and secular blocs -- the Shi'ite alliance is almost assured of having its choice named as prime minister when the newly elected Iraqi parliament formally takes office in two weeks. Under Iraq's system of government, the prime minister is the most powerful public official, with the president serving in a largely symbolic capacity.

Jaafari, 59, an intellectual given to quoting poets and philosophers in his public speeches, appeared to be painfully aware of the burden of leading a country still in chaos nearly three years after a US-led coalition toppled Hussein's dictatorship. The country is torn by rivalries among Shi'ites, Sunni Arabs, and Kurds. Its infrastructure is in tatters after decades of war and neglect. And the leader of the country's most violent insurgent organization, Al Qaeda in Iraq, has sworn to destroy the country's nascent democracy.

''You should console me in this situation," Jaafari told Abdul-Mahdi when the latter congratulated him. ''This is a big burden and a position of difficulties."

None of the problems, least of all the violence, has shown dramatic improvement during Jaafari's year in office.

Some Iraqis complained of the continuing crisis in interviews yesterday, and wondered whether Jaafari was the right leader for the job.

''Everything went from bad to worse," Samer Abllahad, a shopkeeper in Baghdad, said of Jaafari's year as interim prime minister. ''I think the main reason was that he did not have time to make a difference. Maybe in the coming four years, he will be able to make some changes and bring safety to the country."

Jaafari's challenges begin with gaining the acceptance of ethnic and sectarian factions who have quarreled with him since April, when he took over a temporary government charged with writing the constitution and holding parliamentary elections.

Kurdish leaders, who run a largely autonomous region in northern Iraq, have argued with Jaafari over who will control the oil-rich city of Kirkuk. The Sunni Arabs, who once received preferential treatment under Hussein, now complain of abuses at the hands of government security forces dominated by Shi'ite militias. Others worry about Jaafari's close ties to the Islamic theocracy in Iran, where he spent several years in exile.

''I think the alliance has committed a big strategic mistake," said Tariq Hashimi, the secretary general of the Iraqi Islamic Party, a Sunni group. ''Al-Jaafari's name is connected to a government that has won a record for the weakest performance in the country."

He went on to say that Jaafari's ''name is connected to all the human rights abuse scandals in the country."

Jaafari's first order of business is to form a government, a process that could take months. Among the most thorny questions is how many Sunnis will enter the government, particularly the important posts of defense minister and interior minister. Sunni leaders hope to control at least one of the security posts in the hope that they can rein in abuses by the police and Shi'ite militias.

If Jaafari ''chose new ministers of no ethnic motivations and no background of corruption, there will be a chance to cooperate with him," said Saleh Mutlak, the head of one of the Sunni parties. ''Generally, the performance will depend on the cabinet he'd choose, not only on him."

While US officials have expressed a preference for secular leaders in the past, in several official statements they have said they will accept the outcome of elections so long as the leaders are effective.

At the news conference yesterday, Jaafari's opponents in the Shi'ite alliance said they would unite behind their nominee.

''We all stand beside him as one hand to do the job that the alliance, the next government and the parliament are tasked with," Abdul-Mahdi said.

Jaafari, looking ashen-faced behind the podium, said he was wary of taking a job with so many perils. ''The smile on my lips would have been wider if I were excused of this responsibility," he said.

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