Shiite leader named Iraq’s new premier

BAGHDAD, Iraq – On another day of firsts in Iraq, a devout Muslim doctor who spent exile in Iran and Britain was named Thursday to become the nation’s first Shiite leader and was asked to form a government capable of healing the nation’s growing divisions.

Though Ibrahim al-Jaafari has a month to present a Cabinet to the Transitional National Assembly, he said he hoped to complete the process within a week. Officials acknowledged that disputes remained over which key Cabinet posts should go to what factions.

Al-Jaafari’s selection had been expected since early March. It became official shortly after President Jalal Talabani and Iraq’s two vice presidents took an oath of office Thursday in a humble ceremony inside Baghdad’s heavily defended Green Zone.

In his inauguration speech, Talabani hammered on the theme of national conciliation and of bridging Iraq’s ethnic and sectarian differences. He repeatedly urged Sunni Muslims, who are vastly underrepresented in the parliament, to join the political process. He suggested an amnesty for insurgent fighters who lay down their arms.

Talabani, 71, a longtime Kurdish leader who was voted in as president by lawmakers Wednesday, urged the government to reach out to Sunnis “who have been cheated by misleading slogans.” He drew a line between foreign militants he called terrorists and Iraqi nationalists who have joined the insurgency against U.S.-led forces and the interim Iraqi government they installed.

“We have to achieve conciliation … and forgive the Iraqis who are ready to contribute,” Talabani said in floating the idea of an insurgent amnesty.

Al-Jaafari did not address the amnesty question. But he pledged to “try to deal with the reasons behind this phenomenon” of terrorism. He urged the Sunnis who boycotted the Jan. 30 elections out of fear or anger to join the process and be treated “with all trust and respect.”

Dawa, the political party al-Jaafari heads, is a key component of the Shiite alliance that won more than half the seats in the National Assembly, which will draft Iraq’s new constitution. Together with the Kurds, who won 75 seats, the Shiite alliance has pledged to put together a government of Shiites, Kurds and Sunnis that can convince average Iraqis that they all have a voice in Iraq’s future.

Least receptive to that message are the Sunni Arabs, who view with great suspicion the influence of Islamic clerics, as well as of Iran, on the Shiite politicians.

Al-Jaafari’s history will do little to dispel those fears. Born in the holy Shiite city of Karbala in 1947, al-Jaafari rose to prominence in the Islamist Dawa party before fleeing to Iran in 1980 under threat from Saddam Hussein.

Though he has rejected suggestions that he wants to mimic Iran’s system of governance by mullah, al-Jaafari is close to Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s most revered Shiite cleric. Al-Jaafari himself has proposed that Islam and the Koran play a strong role in Iraq’s political system.

Yet al-Jaafari also cooperated closely with the U.S.-led occupation, serving on the Iraqi Governing Council and as an interim vice president. He has offered a hand to the minority Sunnis.

“Any political force that boycotted the election and did not have a chance to get into parliament will be treated by us with trust and respect,” al-Jaafari told reporters after Talabani tapped him for prime minister.

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