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Al-Ja’afari Premier Credentials Questioned

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Ibrahim Al-Ja’afari is under pressure from leading Shia to withdraw as their candidate for post of premier because of his slowing progress on forming a new government and concerns over his Islamist orientation.


By Kamran al-Karadaghi in London (ICR No. 118, 23-Mar-05)

 Al-Ja’afari, the candidate of the Shia-dominated United Iraqi Alliance, UIA, is apparently struggling to deal with Kurdish demands for greater autonomy and a general resistance to the possible imposition of Islamic law, after more than a month of negotiations on the formation of a new government.

For the moment, the Kurdish delegation to the government talks have put all negotiations on hold while its members participate in the week-long New Year festival of Naroz, which began on March 21.

The Elaph web site - a reliable London-based Arabic news service - quoted sources close to the negotiations as confirming that influential UIA members are calling for the Islamist Al-Ja’afari to be replaced as prime ministerial candidate due to his failure to reach an agreement with the Kurds and other groups on a new government.

In another development, a spokesman for the Shia Political Council, SPC - which is part of the UIA - said that the UIA’s choice of an Islamist candidate for the post of prime minister had raised fears among all the groups in the alliance.

The SPC spokesman, council secretary Hussein Al-Musawi, warned that the UIA might fall apart if Al-Ja’afari, leader of the Al-Da’wa Islamic party, remained its favoured candidate.

Al-Musawi said that the council’s proposal – that the UIA elect a new candidate by secret ballot – had been rejected.

The SPC, an umbrella organisation representing some 20 parties and groups, claims it has mustered the support of almost 50 of the UIA’s 140 members elected to the 275-strong National Assembly.

Al-Musawi told the US-funded Arabic Radio Sawa that several groups are considering withdrawing from the UIA. He identified these as the SPC, the National Bloc - which is close to the young Shia firebrand clergyman Moqtada Al-Sadr - and the Sunni bloc.

Leading council member Dr Ahmad Chalabi - who heads the Iraqi National Congress, INC - had been one of four potential candidates for the post of premier, but he and two other contestants withdrew in favour of Al-Ja’afari. They later said that their decision had been dictated by their desire to preserve unity within the UIA.

But Kurdish sources confirmed that a week ago Ayatollah Hussein Al-Sadr, a leading Shia clergy and a member of The Iraqi List, hosted a meeting at his Baghdad house between the leader of the grouping Ayad Allawi and Chalabi.

Many press reports suggested that Chalabi was now considering linking up with Allawi and the Kurds to propose their own candidate for premier.

This move coincides with reports leaked by the Kurds to the media indicating that they too are not happy with the UIA’s choice of candidate.

To strengthen his position within the UIA, Al-Ja’afari is now trying to persuade Allawi to take part in the cabinet. However, Allawi refused the offer - saying that his political programme and that of the Shia alliance were incompatible.

The Kurds insist that a new government should be formed by consensus with the participation of Allawi’s group and some Sunni Arab factions which did not take part in the elections.

If Al-Ja’afari withdraws, the contest will be between the three other original UIA candidates - Chalabi, SCIRI’s Adel Abdul Mahdi (the outgoing finance minister) and scientist Hussein Al-Shahristani, a close ally of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. But it will also revive Allawi’s hopes.

Significantly, the Americans - who many observers feel favour Allawi - have until now refrained from interfering in the controversy.

Privately, Kurdish leaders would prefer either the secularist Allawi, or the moderate Islamist Abdul Mahdi for the top job. They have been working with the duo in exile for years and feel more comfortable with them than with the more liberal but unpredictable Chalabi.

However, Al-Ja’afari is still officially the UIA candidate and might well stay that way. The National Assembly’s next meeting is scheduled for March 26, and there are still contradicting reports regarding a possible announcement about the new government on that day.

Ordinary Iraqis cannot agree on who is responsible for the delay. Many pro-UIA Iraqis blame the Kurds - accusing them of putting their ethnic interests above those of the Iraqi people. Other Iraqi Arabs, while they may not necessarily agree with the Kurdish position, welcome the fact that it appears to have weakened the Shia hardliners’ demands for Sharia law.

Last week, a well-known Iraqi Arab commentator, Adnan Hussein, delighted the Kurds with his column in the Saudi-funded and London-based Asharq Al-Awsat daily newspaper. The title of his commentary - “Thank you to the Kurds” – speaks for itself.

He said that the Kurds deserve praise from all Iraqis for “vigorously defending a democratic future for Iraq and their tough stance against the dark forces of sectarianism who offer the Iraqi people no option … but to fall under a religious-sectarian autocracy modelled on the Islamic republic in Iran or the Taleban in Afghanistan”.

Kamran Al-Karadaghi is IWPR’s Iraq Editorial Advisor in London.

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Last modified 2005-04-15 06:34 AM

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