Ayatollah in a suit?

Shiites nominate a former doctor with strong religious beliefs after Chalabi pulls out of the race for prime minister of Iraq.

Published February 23, 2005 3:42PM (EST)

Iraq's main Shiite alliance Tuesday chose a self-effacing man who used to be a family doctor in Britain as its candidate to be the first democratic prime minister since the fall of Saddam Hussein. Ibrahim al-Jaafari, 58, is almost certain to head the new government after winning the unanimous approval of the Shiite bloc that won last month's election. The former exile has been dubbed an ayatollah in a suit because of his strong religious beliefs, but he is also seen as a conciliatory figure who will reach out to ethnic and religious minorities.

At a news conference in Baghdad to announce his nomination, he promised to tackle the insurgency ravaging the country. "The priority now is security. It affects all other issues, such as the economy and rebuilding," he said. Jaafari has resisted calls from Sunnis and radical Shiites to set a timetable for the withdrawal of the U.S. troops who have occupied the country since the March 2003 invasion.

Three years ago, the softly spoken married father of five was an exile treating patients in Wembley, north London, and barely known in the homeland he fled in 1980. His success was sealed when the only other candidate inside the alliance, former Pentagon favorite Ahmad Chalabi, withdrew from the race for Iraq's most powerful post.

There were predictions the Shiites would splinter, but a closed-door meeting in Baghdad persuaded Chalabi, who had courted women and secular factions, to support Jaafari. "They wanted him to withdraw; they didn't want to push the vote to a secret ballot," said Haytham al-Husaini, a spokesman for the bloc's biggest party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq.

Chalabi's leadership attempt helped to bring him out of the political wilderness, and he is expected to receive a leading government post in return for maintaining unity. "We will see," was all Chalabi would say Tuesday.

The Shiite bloc won 140 of the National Assembly's 275 seats, a narrow majority, and by presenting a united front should easily claim the office of prime minister, despite efforts by the incumbent, Ayad Allawi, to keep his job.

Under the name of the United Iraqi Alliance, the Shiites took 48 percent of the vote in the election on Jan. 30, a victory credited largely to the tacit backing of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's most revered Shiite cleric. The assembly, which may convene as early as next week, will appoint a president and two vice presidents, who in turn will appoint a prime minister. The prime minister will have one month to name a cabinet and present it to the assembly for approval.

In reality, the key appointments are being decided in horse-trading between and within rival blocs. The Kurdish alliance, which took a quarter of the seats, seems set to install its candidate, Jalal Talabani, into the largely ceremonial office of the president, as well as claiming several ministries.

Competition within the Shiite bloc is no less fierce. Having forfeited the office of prime minister, SCIRI is rumored to have secured two cabinet posts. Jaafari's party, Islamic Dawa, will probably get just one. Both groups developed close ties to Iran when persecution by Saddam forced them underground and into exile.

As a member of the U.S.-backed Governing Council, Jaafari backed efforts to bring family law under Islamic sharia codes, which critics fear would erode women's rights. Since then, he has reassured critics that his wife drives a car and has her own career as a doctor.

The key task for the government and assembly will be to draft a constitution. This will be voted on in a referendum before a fresh election in December.

The jockeying for jobs will test Shiite and Kurdish pledges to bring in from the cold the Arab Sunnis, who largely shunned the election because of boycott calls from their leaders and threats from insurgents.

Jaafari has promised to govern for all Iraqis, not just the long-oppressed Shiite majority. Leading Sunnis approve of him but are less keen on his stated aim of uprooting members of Saddam's Baath Party.

By Rory Carroll

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