Iraqi interim president, council sworn in

Published April 7, 2005 3:10PM (EDT)

BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) -- Iraq's presidential council was sworn in Thursday and named Shiite Arab Ibrahim al-Jaafari to the country's most powerful position -- interim prime minister -- giving Iraq its first freely elected government in 50 years, and its third set of interim leaders since the U.S.-led invasion.

The session wasn't without its gaffes, however. After his inaugural speech, interim President Jalal Talabani, a Kurdish leader, walked off the stage, returning after most television feeds of the event were cut off to say he had forgotten to name the new prime minister.

Some Shiite lawmakers were angered by the action.

"We hope that they forgot," said Abbas Hassan Mousa al-Bayati, a top member of the Shiite-dominated United Iraqi Alliance. "This happened because of bad management."

Al-Jaafari didn't seem upset, however, telling reporters after the session: "This day represents a democratic process and a step forward."

Al-Jaafari has two weeks to name his Cabinet, allowing the new government to begin work on its primary task: drafting a permanent constitution. If approved, the constitution will pave the way for elections for a permanent government in December.

Parliament speaker Hajim al-Hassani said outgoing Prime Minister Ayad Allawi had turned in his resignation, but was asked to conduct the day-to-day work of the government until a new Cabinet is named. Al-Hassani urged Iraq's new leaders to begin immediately.

"Your people are looking at you and waiting," he said "So, work!"

After taking over the mostly ceremonial post of president, Talabani pledged to fight the country's insurgency, which has claimed thousands of lives in the two years since Baghdad fell to U.S.-led forces on April 9, 2003.

"The task of finishing off the black plague of terrorism is a nagging necessity that cannot be delayed," he said.

He also reached out the country's Sunni Arabs, believed to make up the backbone of the insurgency, saying: "It is time for our Sunni brothers to participate in the democratic march."

Saddam, who watched Talabani's election on video tape Wednesday at the request of lawmakers, wasn't expected to see Thursday's ceremony.

Al-Jaafari's rise to the prime minister's job further consolidated the power shift in Iraq, where both the Shiite Arab majority and the Kurdish minority enjoy newfound power after decades of brutal oppression under Saddam's Sunni-dominated regime.

Shiites have a majority of seats in the National Assembly, while Kurds have the second largest bloc. Sunni Arabs have disproportionately few seats, largely because many boycotted the Jan. 30 elections or stayed home for fear of attacks at the polls.

Al-Jaafari spent more than two decades in exile, mostly in Britain and Iran, helping to lead anti-Saddam opposition forces in the Islamic Dawa Party, Iraq's first Shiite Islamic political party. He also has close ties to Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's most influential Shiite cleric. Al-Jaafari's wife is a distant relative of al-Sistani's.

Newspaper headlines announced al-Jaafari's expected appointment Thursday. But many Iraqis, jaded by two years of conflict, said they would wait for results from the new government before celebrating.

"We, as Iraqis, are demanding security first," said Kadim Jassib, a 32-year-old Shiite vendor. "This is a very important point, and the other problems will resolve themselves automatically. Then, we can ask the coalition troops to withdraw from Iraq."

Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani was chosen for the largely ceremonial job of president on Wednesday, while Adel Abdul-Mahdi, a Shiite, and current interim President Ghazi al-Yawer, a Sunni Arab, were elected vice presidents.

After he was named to the presidency, Talabani urged Iraqi insurgents, who are believed to be mostly Sunni Arabs, to begin talks. But prominent Sunni Arab groups distanced themselves from the new government - even though some Sunni leaders were give top posts.

"We are not related to any process in this matter of choosing candidates," Muthana al-Dhari, spokesman for the Association of Muslim Scholars, a Sunni group, told Al-Jazeera satellite television.

Lawmakers have been in ongoing negotiations over Cabinet nominees who will manage government ministries. And they have yet to delve into their primary task: drafting a permanent constitution, which is supposed to be finished by Aug. 15.

Saddam and 11 of his top aides were given the choice of watching a tape of Wednesday's National Assembly session in their prison and all chose to do so, said Bakhtiar Amin, human rights minister in the outgoing interim government.

Amin said Saddam watched by himself, while the others viewed it as a group.

"I imagine (Saddam) was upset," Amin said. "He must have realized that the era of his government was over, and that there was no way he was returning to office."

South of Baghdad, a lawmaker in interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi's coalition in parliament said Thursday he survived an assassination attempt after the assembly meeting the prior day. Skeikh Maad Jasim Mizhir al-Samarmad, also head of the Zubid tribes in Iraq, said he was attacked by gunmen in the al-Wihda district, 20 miles south of the capital.

In ongoing religious violence, a Shiite shrine was destroyed Thursday by assailants who planted explosives in the structure in the Latifiya area, 35 miles south of Baghdad, according to Babil police spokesman Muthana Khalid. The al-Khudir shrine was destroyed by armed men who arrived in several vehicles, Khalid said.

On Wednesday, an Internet statement, purportedly from the terrorist group al-Qaida in Iraq, claimed responsibility for the kidnapping of a senior Interior Ministry official, Brig. Gen. Jala Mohammed Saleh. The statement could not be independently verified.

Saleh, involved in anti-insurgency operations, was kidnapped Tuesday by gunmen who broke into his house in Baghdad.

By Antonio Castaneda

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