BAGHDAD — Ibrahim Jafari, a Muslim scholar and leader of Iraq's oldest Islamist party, was unanimously nominated as prime minister Tuesday by the Shiite-led alliance that carried the country's historic elections last month, and his confirmation by the national assembly seemed all but assured.
The selection of Jafari opens the way for the first Shiite-led government in Iraq's modern existence, and it signals a dramatic change for the Arab world, where Sunni Muslims are dominant. It also puts the United States in the position of providing its armed forces to protect a government led by an Islamist with ties to Iran.
The United Iraqi Alliance selected Jafari after the other main contender, veteran exile leader Ahmad Chalabi, backed out under pressure Tuesday. Jafari was chosen after two days of meetings at a compound bedecked in religious insignia and controlled by the largest Shiite party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq.
Outlining his priorities at a news conference Tuesday, Jafari pledged to include other religious and ethnic groups in the new government. He vowed to be firm with the "criminals" responsible for the insurgency that has wreaked havoc on Iraq's economy and reconstruction.
"Security is our first priority, as it dominates the minds of our citizens. The state has broken down because of fractured security, reflected in the absence of public services and a paralysis in reconstruction," he said. "We will use toughness in those situations that require toughness, and we will use the highest degree of softness in those areas that need softness."
Jafari said he expected the new government to be finalized within two weeks after talks were held within the Shiite alliance and with other political groups to resolve major appointments.
Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani, whose slate came in second in the Jan. 30 election, is thought to be in line to get the largely ceremonial post of president. Interim President Ghazi Ajil Yawer, a Sunni Arab whose slate did poorly in the vote, is considered the favorite to become speaker of the assembly. However, negotiations were continuing.
Jafari, who has served as interim vice president since June, has consistently rated as one of Iraq's most popular politicians in polls. But his selection aroused misgivings among several groups.
Secular Iraqis and religious minorities are concerned that his strong Muslim beliefs could diminish the status of women; Sunni Muslims distrust his Islamic Dawa Party because it has had close ties to Iran.
A devout Shiite, who according to an aide has the scholarly rank of mujtahid, or one qualified to give religious rulings, Jafari refuses to shake the hands of women and was behind a move last year to make Islamic law Iraq's legal basis for dealing with issues such as marriage, divorce and inheritances.
The Dawa Party, founded in 1957 in Najaf, long battled the regime of Saddam Hussein. Brutally suppressed by Hussein, it was given sanctuary in Iran, and Jafari lived for nine years under that country's Islamic rule. He then moved to London, where he led his party branch in exile until his return to Iraq in 2003 after the U.S.-led invasion.
U.S. policy has been not to interfere in the selection of the new government, and a U.S. diplomat in Baghdad said recently that Washington would "work with whatever government the Iraqi people freely chose." But privately, American officials were thought to be ambivalent about the choice.
On the key question of whether U.S. forces should leave, Jafari said Tuesday that he favored "withdrawal of the troops from Iraq as soon as possible." He acknowledged, however, that it would be dangerous for them to leave immediately.
Incumbent Prime Minister Iyad Allawi remains in the race against Jafari, but even his own party members give him virtually no chance of succeeding. A secular politician and former Baath Party member who broke with Hussein's regime in the 1970s, Allawi has been a favorite of the White House since assuming office nearly nine months ago. But he has been criticized by some members of the Shiite coalition who believe he was too willing to bring former Baathists into Iraq's new police and security services.
The Shiite coalition is formidable because it controls 140 of the 275 seats in the assembly and has forged postelection alliances with several small parties that hold about 10 additional seats.
Allawi's party controls 40 seats. Even if it were to make a deal with the second-place Kurdish alliance, with 75 seats, it would be far short of the two-thirds majority, or 182 votes, that is required for appointing the three-member presidential council, which technically selects the prime minister.
Shiite leaders hope to strike deals to include both the Kurds and Allawi's ticket, plus two Sunni parties that boycotted the election, to form what party leaders have proclaimed will be a government of national unity.