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News >  Nation/World

Backroom trading starts for top jobs

Jamie Tarabay Associated Press

BAGHDAD, Iraq – A French-educated finance minister and a former London physician emerged Monday as the top candidates to be Iraq’s next prime minister after the clergy-backed Shiite Muslim alliance failed to get the necessary majority of votes to control the Legislature.

The prominence of urbane, moderate, Western-oriented figures appeared designed to counter concern in Washington that Iran’s influence will grow in Iraq after a Shiite-dominated government takes power – even though the ultimate decision may rest with a reclusive elderly cleric.

Adel Abdul-Mahdi, interim finance minister, and Ibrahim al-Jaafari, interim vice president, were said to be the leading candidates for prime minister as backroom trading for the top posts in the new government began in earnest Monday.

The consultations were necessary because the United Iraqi Alliance failed to secure the two-thirds majority in the newly elected National Assembly that would have allowed it to control the Legislature and install whomever it wanted as president.

The Kurds, poised to become kingmakers in the new Iraq, have said they want Jalal Talabani, a secular Sunni Kurd and leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, to be Iraq’s next president, a largely ceremonial post. The Shiites may seek a deal with the Kurds to back Talabani for president in return for Kurdish support for their prime ministerial choice.

The Kurds, who make up about 15 percent of Iraq’s population, have demanded that the new constitution legalize Kurdish self-rule in northern Iraq. They also want an end to what they call “Arabization” of Kirkuk and other northern areas where most of the Arabs are Sunni Muslims.

But the Shiites know they must move carefully, particularly if they want to extend a hand to the minority Sunni Arabs to form an inclusive government and tame a virulent insurgency. Many Sunni Arabs, who make up about 20 percent of the Iraqi population, stayed home on election day out of fear or in support of a boycott called by clerics opposed to the U.S. military.

Meanwhile, Iranian Foreign Minister Kamel Kharrazi welcomed the results of the Jan. 30 elections and said his country expects Iraq’s Shiite Muslim majority to work with the country’s other ethnic groups.

Iran, though not Arab, is predominantly Shiite, and its government has close ties with many Iraqi Shiite leaders.

The election results for the National Assembly, announced Sunday, gave the clergy-backed United Iraqi Alliance 48 percent of the vote, the Kurdish alliance 26 percent and the ticket led by interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite who supports strong ties to Washington, only 14 percent.

The National Assembly’s first task is to elect a president and two vice presidents. Then the trio will choose a prime minister subject to National Assembly approval. The parties that make up the United Iraqi Alliance – the Islamic Dawa Party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq and former Pentagon protege Ahmad Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress – huddled for talks Monday to decide on a prime ministerial candidate.

Al-Jaafari was the Dawa Party’s choice, while the Supreme Council nominated Abdul-Mahdi, said Humam Hamoudi, a spokesman for the United Iraqi Alliance.

But it ultimately may be Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani who decides. Al-Sistani’s tacit endorsement is believed to have led to the alliance’s electoral victory. Representatives from the alliance will visit the elderly cleric today.

Among other leading Shiites, Chalabi has also thrown his name into the contest for prime minister. Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, a turbaned cleric who led the ticket and has close links with Iran, has said he’s not interested in the job.

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