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Jaafari reverses, cedes nomination

Shi'ite alliance to vote again on prime minister

BAGHDAD -- Iraq's prime minister yesterday relinquished his nomination to a new term after weeks of intense pressure, capping a day of surprises that left many politicians here hopeful that a monthslong stalemate over the formation of a new government would finally end.

In a letter and a national television address at 11 p.m. yesterday, Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari said he would give up his hard-won nomination by the dominant coalition of Shi'ite parties, the United Iraqi Alliance, and allow its members to select another candidate if they chose.

''No one should attach my name to the delay in the process," the physician said in the half-hour address, standing before the library in his official residence. ''I shall sacrifice everything in order to make the alliance succeed and in order to strengthen its unity. . . . I leave it to them to decide what they want." Sunni and Kurdish groups have unanimously opposed his nomination.

It was a sudden turnabout for a man who the day before had said his withdrawal was ''out of the question." And it was not the only surprise of the day, as dozens of politicians turned out for a long-delayed meeting of parliament only to find it was canceled.

At an impromptu news conference outside the room where the parliament members were to have met, Sunni, Kurdish, and Shi'ite leaders said Jaafari's withdrawal could break the deadlock that has prevailed since the national elections of Dec. 15.

''We shall return on Saturday, and we hope all the names will be ready," Hussain Shahristani, the spokesman for the Shi'ite alliance, said at the news conference. ''There will be one full, complete package on Saturday."

Among the people mentioned as alternatives to Jaafari are two members of his Dawa party: Jawad al-Maliki, its spokesman, and Ali al-Adeeb, a prominent politician whose ties to Iran disturb many Sunni Arabs.

But Jaafari appeared to think that the alliance could renew his nomination. ''All the people of Iraq are my sons, and they have provided me with the resolve and the insistence to go on, whether in government or in the political movement that I am a part of," he said.

Almost immediately after winning the nomination of the Shi'ite alliance by a single vote in February, Jaafari came under pressure to give it up. While the Shi'ite coalition holds the most seats in Iraq's parliament -- and thus has first crack at choosing a prime minister -- it is unable to form a government without the support of at least some of Iraq's Sunni Arab and Kurdish parties.

But Sunni, Kurdish, and secular parties frustrated with Jaafari's leadership since he became the transitional prime minister last year demanded that the Shi'ite coalition choose another nominee.

The political situation has been frozen as the rival coalitions have negotiated in lengthy closed meetings, promising almost daily that agreement is just around the corner. In addition to the difficulties in choosing a prime minister, they have grappled with questions of who will fill other key posts in the interior, defense, and oil ministries.

While the talks dragged on, Sunnis and Shi'ites have continued killing one another on the streets. At least 11 Iraqis died yesterday in shootings and bombings around the country, according to police officials and news reports.

In recent days, President Bush, Shi'ite religious authorities, and a UN special envoy have all encouraged Iraqi politicians -- particularly members of the Shi'ite alliance -- to find a solution quickly.

''The absence of an effective national unity government is creating the conditions for the insurgency to do what it wants to do," Major General Rick Lynch, a US military spokesman, said at a news conference yesterday.

Jaafari said he agreed to a new vote so that his fellow Shi'ite lawmakers ''can think with complete freedom and see what they wish to do."

However, Kurdish politician Mahmoud Othman said Jaafari's change of heart followed meetings Wednesday in the Shi'ite holy city of Najaf between UN envoy Ashraf Qazi and both anti-American Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the nation's most prestigious Shi'ite cleric. ''There was a signal from Najaf," Othman said in an interview. ''Qazi's meetings with [Sistani] and [Sadr] were the chief reason that untied the knot."

Aides to Sistani, the spiritual leader of the Shi'ite alliance, said the ayatollah was frustrated over the deadlock in forming a government and alarmed over the rise in sectarian violence that followed the Feb. 22 bombing of a Shi'ite shrine in Samarra.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said there were ''indications" the impasse would be resolved. He called for a strong and effective government that could ''begin to repay the trust put in the political parties and the political leaders by the Iraqi people."

Many Shi'ite politicians had been quietly pressing Jaafari to step down, but were reluctant to force him out for fear it would shatter the Shi'ite alliance and make the coalition appear weak.

Stepping up the pressure this month, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Foreign Secretary Jack Straw of Britain flew to Baghdad and demanded quick action to resolve the impasse. However, several Iraqi figures complained the US and British intervention had prompted Jaafari's supporters to dig in their heels against what many Iraqis considered foreign interference.

Sunnis and Kurds say Jaafari is to blame for the increasing sectarian tensions, accusing him of failing to consult his coalition partners. Kurds accused him of failing to keep commitments over oil-rich Kirkuk, which the Kurds want to incorporate into their three-province self-ruled region in the north.

With the issue over the prime minister's post nearing resolution, Sunni and Kurdish politicians expressed optimism that the new government could be formed quickly. ''I am confident we will succeed in forming the national unity government that all Iraqis are hoping for," Sunni elder statesman Adnan Pachachi said.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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