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Jaafari Gets Ayatollah's Approval

Former vice-president, who’s seen as a conservative, receives vote of confidence from top cleric in his bid for the premiership.
By Zainab Naji

Iraq’s top Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, has endorsed the country’s leading candidate for prime minister.


Ibrahim al-Jaafari told reporters that the talks he held with Sistani on February 25 also focused on efforts to include all parties in the political process.


Top Sunni parties boycotted the January 30 elections over concerns about security and the presence of foreign troops. Turnout was as low as two per cent in the mainly Sunni towns where insurgents are most active, such as Fallujah and Ramadi.


Jaafari’s United Iraqi Alliance holds a slim – but not absolute – majority of seats in the transitional National Assembly, which is charged with writing a new constitution. The alliance said it is committed to having disenfranchised Sunnis take part in writing the constitution, and it has held meetings with several Sunni groups.


Jaafari visited Najaf just days after he became the alliance’s sole candidate for prime minister. His last challenger, Ahmed Chalabi, dropped out of the race after three days of round-the-clock bargaining.


A spokesman for Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress party said he stepped down to preserve the alliance’s unity.


“There was a need for courageous step to be taken, instead of a vote that might have put the United Iraqi Alliance in a dilemma," said Haidar al-Musawi.


Adil Hussein, spokesman for the United Iraqi Alliance, called the negotiations that led to Chalabi’s withdrawal “democratic and transparent”. Others said Chalabi came under pressure from senior members of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, SCIRI, the top party in the alliance.


Chalabi, a secular Shia, was the last in a long list of possible challengers to Jaafari, who heads the conservative Islamic Dawa party, the other main force in the Shia-led bloc.


Interim finance minister Adil Abdul Mahdi and nuclear physicist Hussein al-Shahristani also have withdrawn their candidacies within the last two weeks.


Jaafari consistently ranks as one of the most popular politicians in Iraq, despite having spent much of his life in exile in Iran and London.


Many Iraqis are not surprised that he has become the alliance’s choice for prime minister.


"I voted for the United Iraqi Alliance list for the sake of al-Jaafari because I respect his views. He is a smart politician," said Kareem Ali, an engineer in Baghdad.


Others said they were concerned that Jaafari would push a religious agenda in the new government by trying to introduce Islamic law into the constitution.


“Jaafari means an Islamic government that’s partial towards the Shia community, which will be like an Islamic republic," said Omer Rasheed, a government employee.


The United Iraqi Alliance has consistently denied that its leaders want an Iranian-style theocracy in Iraq, but many Iraqis remain sceptical.


To become prime minister, Jaafari must now convince two-thirds of the National Assembly members to back his candidacy.


He is likely to compete against interim prime minister Ayad Allawi, who announced that he was forming a coalition to help him hold onto his post and counter the powerful Shia bloc.


Zainab Naji is an IWPR trainee in Baghdad.


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