Working the phones

The three leading Shiite candidates for prime minister, including the infamous Ahmed Chalabi, begin their bids for the most powerful job in Iraq.

By Rory Carroll
Published February 14, 2005 2:11PM (EST)

Three rivals within the Shiite-dominated coalition that triumphed in Iraq's election moved swiftly Sunday night to bid for the job of prime minister. Ibrahim al-Jaafari and Adel Abdul Mahdi are barely known outside the country, and Ahmad Chalabi is more infamous than famous. Yet one of them is expected to become overnight a crucial player in the Middle East.

Sunday's announcement of the final tally from the Jan. 30 election confirmed a sweeping victory for the United Iraqi Alliance, though its 47.6 percent of votes cast was lower than some predictions. It was enough, however, for leaders of the three main groupings within the coalition to advance their claim for the most powerful post in government, working the phones late into the night and sending emissaries to potential allies. After the drama of Election Day, when millions voted despite threats from insurgents, politics will now become a game of largely behind-the-scenes deal making between and within coalitions.

Trailing far behind the Shiite list was a Kurdish alliance with 26 percent and a list headed by the outgoing Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, with 13.8 percent, giving the United Iraqi Alliance a strong claim over the prime ministership, a more powerful job than the presidency or National Assembly chairman.

Now, for the first time, Shiites, comprising 60 percent of the population, will rule Iraq after decades of domination by the minority Sunnis. The three leading candidates are secular male Shiites who were exiled under Saddam Hussein's regime but otherwise have little in common.

Many analysts consider the favorite to be Mahdi, 63, an economist who served as finance minister in the outgoing interim government. The son of a guerrilla who fought the British in the 1920s, he joined the Baath Party in the 1960s when it espoused Arab nationalism and socialist economics but says he quit the movement in 1964 when members like Saddam Hussein moved up the ranks by killing opponents.

Mahdi fled to France, where he obtained degrees in politics and economics and dabbled in Maoism before moving to Iran and joining the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), a group of exiles who campaigned for Saddam's overthrow and an Islamic-guided government in their homeland. Some analysts wonder whether the urbane Mahdi is a frontman for hard-liners within his party who want an Iran-style theocracy in Iraq guided by the country's leading Shiite cleric. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani is credited as the architect of the Shiite coalition that gathered rival parties under one banner. The 76-year-old cleric will retain influence regardless of who becomes prime minister.

Mahdi's main rival is Jaafari, 57, a physician who polls suggest is Iraq's most popular politician after the grand ayatollah. Jaafari, who was exiled in Britain, is considered a moderate. Security was so tight around his compound in Baghdad's heavily protected Green Zone Sunday that visitors were asked to remove all equipment, including watches.

"If asked to be prime minister I would be willing to serve our nation," he said. "We have a responsibility now to work together for the sake of the people. They have made this magnificent gesture, and we should all take it seriously and make it work." He advocated an inclusive administration that would respect the Kurds' mandate and reach out to Sunnis who abstained en masse from the election, partly because of threats from insurgents such as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi: "It is a present to Zarqawi if we push them from the government."

The third candidate, Chalabi, is known internationally for heading a group of Iraqi exiles that fed Washington inaccurate reports of Saddam's weapons of mass destruction. The failure to find any weapons contributed to a breach with the U.S. administration and a raid on his house by American soldiers last year. Dogged by a 1992 conviction for embezzlement, Chalabi was said to be one of Iraq's most unpopular politicians. But having got his party into the United Iraqi Alliance, he has courted an eclectic mix of pro-Western Shiites as well as Islamic radicals, giving him an outside chance of the prime minister's job if the two main candidates are deadlocked.

His falling out with the Americans boosted his credibility with Iraqis fed up with the occupation, Chalabi's deputy, Mudhar Shawkat, said Sunday. "It was to his benefit." Without fanfare, a senior U.S. diplomat recently visited Chalabi to restore relations.

Rory Carroll

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