BAGHDAD — Iraq's interim prime minister, a mild-mannered religious scholar accused by critics of lacking charisma and effectiveness, fended off a strong challenge within his coalition Sunday and appears certain to retain his post in the country's first permanent government since the fall of Saddam Hussein.
Ibrahim Jafari, who is also a physician and has been leading Iraq's government since April, won his bloc's nomination for prime minister, defeating economist Adel Abdul Mehdi by one vote after weeks of unsuccessful attempts by the United Iraqi Alliance to come up with a consensus candidate.
The 128-member Shiite- dominated bloc is the largest political group in the 275-seat parliament elected Dec. 15. The legislature must still choose a presidential council, which will then approve the prime minister and his Cabinet, a process that probably will take weeks.
"The victory is not that this person or that wins," said Jafari, standing with Mehdi and other alliance leaders at a news conference. "The victory of the United Iraqi Alliance is by its unity and equanimity."
Jafari's nomination solidifies the dominance of the Shiite alliance, which many of its rivals had hoped would fall apart over the leadership battle. It also disappointed his critics, including those who saw his government as ineffective.
The selection could also complicate efforts to negotiate a broad-based government incorporating Iraq's major groups, given the wide perception among Sunnis that the current administration under Jafari has been too close to Shiite militias, too sectarian and has purged Sunnis from middle-level positions in the civil service.
As part of a power-sharing agreement within the Shiite coalition, Jafari's selection also means that the Interior Ministry probably will remain in the hands of Mehdi's party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq. The party's militia, the Badr Brigade, has been accused of using security forces as a cover for killing Sunni Arabs.
Mehdi has been viewed by some as independent-minded and less tainted by connections with the Badr Brigade, winning him some support among Sunnis.
Generally, however, no great ideological matters divide Jafari and Mehdi. They differ in style and personality more than on political substance, with Mehdi seen as outgoing and direct and Jafari viewed as a pensive intellectual.
Much political work remains. With Jafari's nomination Sunday and the certification Saturday of final results from the December elections, the Shiites must now begin far tougher negotiations with Iraq's ethnic Kurds and Sunni Arabs to form a government and assign Cabinet and other high-level posts.
U.S. officials have pressed Iraq's political leaders to form an inclusive government drawing in as many factions as possible. The Americans have insisted they have no preference as to who becomes the prime minister in the new administration, though they have repeatedly said that technocrats should head government security forces and explicitly urged the removal of interim Interior Minister Bayan Jabr, a member of Mehdi's Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq.
Although the nomination battle exposed long-existing and well-known fissures within the Shiite coalition, it also showed a measure of its political maturity. The alliance, powerhouse of Iraq's post-invasion political scene, includes Shiite militia leaders, clergy and former exile activists and intellectuals loyal to different clerical families. Many members have ties to Iran. Yet despite the close vote, the coalition's disparate parties made a public show of unity after sticking to their own bylaws in making a potentially divisive decision.
Jafari's selection also appears to ensure that the United Iraqi Alliance's most restless faction, followers of militant Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr, who is a strong critic of U.S. policy in Iraq, will continue to remain in the fold.
In recent days, speculation had mounted that Mehdi would get the post. But Baha Araji, a Sadr loyalist in the Shiite bloc, said the cleric's followers managed to persuade 10 independent legislators to switch their allegiance by opening the floor to debate about Jafari's tenure.
"Eventually there was a very frank dialogue among everybody with Dr. Jafari regarding his weaknesses," he said. But the key issue that hurt Mehdi, Araji said, was the decades-old "lack of harmony between the Sadr people and the SCIRI people."
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Sunday downplayed U.S. concerns about Sadr's influence within the Shiite alliance.
"There are many forces behind the apparent selection of Jafari for the UIA candidate for prime minister. But there are many forces in Iraq.... The good thing about a democratic process is that you have many voices, not one," she said on ABC's "This Week With George Stephanopoulos," adding that in her estimation "what Iraq is driving toward is a government of national unity."