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Jafari Says He'll Quit if Shiite Bloc Wishes

April 21, 2006|Bruce Wallace | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — Beleaguered Iraqis were given new hope that the parliament they elected four months ago would finally form a long-term government after interim Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari loosened his grip on the top job Thursday.

Jafari's fractious Shiite Muslim coalition is to vote today on whether to keep him as its candidate for prime minister or choose a fresh face who might win wider backing from Iraq's disparate ethnic and religious groups.

Jafari has become a polarizing figure whose determination to hang on to the Shiite bloc's nomination despite equally stubborn opposition has frozen the process of finding a powersharing formula and thereby improving conditions for eventual U.S. troop withdrawal.

The political paralysis has contributed to the explosion of street fighting in the last few weeks, notably a killing spree between Shiite and Sunni Muslim militias and gangs.

But Jafari's resistance to stepping aside cracked Thursday. In a statement, followed several hours later by a rambling, nationally televised speech, he asked the umbrella of Shiite parties that emerged from December's elections as the country's dominant political force to reconsider his candidacy.

Jafari promised to "not be an obstacle" if the Shiite bloc no longer wanted him as its candidate.

The coalition immediately seized upon his offer to announce that it would hold a vote on his candidacy today, and find an alternative if he was not reconfirmed.

"Jafari has left the decision about his candidacy with the alliance, which means he is no longer insisting on the post," Jawad Maliki, a senior member of Jafari's Islamic Dawa Party, said at a news conference in Baghdad after reading the prime minister's statement. "Now it will be the alliance which will decide."

Jafari had faced concerted resistance from minority Kurds and Sunni Arabs from the start of his candidacy, which he won in February by one vote from the 130-member nominating forum. More recently, he resisted back-room nudges from U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and impatience with political stalemate expressed by President Bush.

But Jafari apparently relented after members of his coalition and other prominent Shiites began breaking ranks, among them Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the nation's leading Shiite cleric.

Critics alternately accuse Jafari of being too weak and too sectarian as prime minister. He angered Kurds by excluding them from sensitive discussions with neighboring Turkey on Kurdish affairs. And Sunnis blamed him for failing to curb the rising number of Shiite attacks on Sunni targets and for extrajudicial killings by members of the Interior Ministry's Shiite-dominated police forces.

But until Thursday, Jafari had resisted all entreaties to withdraw his name. In his televised address, he scolded other politicians who criticized him in the media but who complimented him in private for the job he was doing.

His surprise reversal came just hours before parliament was scheduled to meet for only the second time since Iraqis defied insurgents and participated in the December balloting. Dawa members said Jafari bent to pressure from within the party, which feared that standing by him in the face of the fierce opposition could ultimately cost the party its claim to the post.

Jafari's offer of a revote on his candidacy offered the prospect a 4-month-long dispute over the prime minister's post could be resolved as soon as Saturday, when parliament is again scheduled to try to convene a session.

"Hopefully, we will have news that will make everyone happy on Saturday," said Jalal Talabani, Iraq's interim president, who has been a key figure in trying to herd the feuding groups toward an agreement.

"Frankly speaking, we have agreed on basics," he said, promising a "friendly session" and the beginnings of a national unity government. "What is left is to put the final touches."

Most observers suggested that the alternative to Jafari, if he were rejected by the ruling United Iraqi Alliance, would come from within the top ranks of his Dawa Party, with expectations generally pointing to either Maliki or Ali Adib. Both spent years in exile after then-President Saddam Hussein began a purge of Dawa members in the early 1980s. Neither carries great clout among ordinary Iraqis.

But though neither man would represent a move away from Dawa's hostility toward the U.S. military presence and Washington's wariness of Iranian influence in Iraq, many say new leadership might be acceptable to Sunni and Shiite parties simply because it was not Jafari.

"Jafari has been given a try and proved he is incapable of handling the security, economy and utilities files," said Hussein Faluji, a Sunni lawmaker. "We think these [issues] should be handled by someone more efficient."

Some, however, suggested that Jafari's move was a risky feint to force the Shiite bloc to reaffirm their support for his candidacy and reassert a message that it is the majority faction and won't be dictated to by Sunni Arabs, Kurds or Americans.

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