New Iraqi leaders take oath of office

Published April 7, 2005 5:26PM (EDT)

BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) -- Iraq's presidential council was sworn in Thursday and named Shiite Arab Ibrahim al-Jaafari as interim prime minister, the country's most powerful position, giving Iraq its first freely elected government in 50 years and further consolidating the postwar power shift.

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

After taking office, new interim President Jalal Talabani, a Kurdish leader, pledged to fight the country's insurgency that has claimed thousands of lives 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.

Talabani also reached out to 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."

Talabani committed one gaffe during the session: After his inaugural speech, he walked off the stage without naming the new prime minister, returning after most television feeds of the event were cut off to say he had simply forgotten.

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 afterward: "This day represents a democratic process and a step forward."

Parliament speaker Hajim al-Hassani said outgoing Prime Minister Ayad Allawi had turned in his resignation but was asked to stay on in a caretaker role 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!"

Al-Jaafari's rise to the prime minister's job solidifies the rise to power of majority Shiites and minority Kurds after decades of brutal oppression under Saddam's Sunni-dominated regime.

Shiites, who comprise some 60 percent of Iraq's 26 million people, 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. Kurds make up about 20 percent and Sunnis make up 15 percent to 20 percent of the population.

The president's post is mostly ceremonial and his biggest task is naming the prime minister, who is expected to run the government's day-to-day business and control the budget.

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.

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."

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.

Talabani was chosen as president on Wednesday, while Adel Abdul-Mahdi, a Shiite, and current interim President Ghazi al-Yawer, a Sunni Arab, were elected vice presidents after weeks of sometimes tense negotations.

It was Iraq's third set of interim leaders since the U.S.-led invastion. The previous government replaced the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council.

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."

The former officials were not expected to watch Thursday's session.

South of Baghdad, a lawmaker in former 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.

Associated Press reporters Maamoun Youssef and Saad Abdul Kadir contributed to this report from Cairo and Baghdad, respectively.

By Antonio Castaneda

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