Likely Iraq PM promises moderation
BAGHDAD, Iraq - The shy family doctor who became the leading candidate for prime minister Tuesday says ending the nation's rampant violence is his top priority and that U.S. troops would remain as long as they are needed to achieve that goal.
In an exclusive Associated Press interview, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, a 58-year-old moderate Shiite Muslim politician who fled a brutal crackdown by Saddam Hussein in 1980, also talked about drafting a constitution that will draw not only on Islam for inspiration.
He said he supports women's rights, including the right to be the president or prime minister, as well as self-determination and individual freedoms for all Iraqis.
The interview took place in the office of al-Jaafari's home in the U.S.-guarded Green Zone in central Baghdad. Islamic art, much of it Quranic verses with intricate Arabic calligraphy in gold that are common in Iraq, adorned the walls. An Iraqi flag was hanging from a pole set on a floor stand in the background. A computer was on his desk.
Ashraf Qazi, the U.N. envoy to Iraq, was waiting outside as al-Jaafari's staff prepared fish and rice for their dinner meeting.
Al-Jaafari, the leader of the Dawa Party, became the top contender for Iraq's top government post after his main rival, Adel Abdul Mahdi, dropped out. Ahmad Chalabi, a former Pentagon favorite, was still in the running for prime minister, but was considered by many to be a long shot.
"We have two candidates for the alliance, Ahmad Chalabi and Ibrahim al-Jaafari, but al-Jaafari is the most likely to be the alliance candidate," said Humam Hamoudi, a spokesman for the Shiite political alliance that has provisionally won more than half the seats in the new National Assembly.
But Chalabi remains a compromise candidate and could be picked as an alternative to al-Jaafari if opposition to him is too high among Kurds, who took 26 percent of the vote, and Sunni Arabs, who largely stayed away from the polls but whose participation may be needed to quell the stubborn insurgency.
The alliance is endorsed by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the spiritual leader of Iraqi Shiites. One of Sistani's aides told the AP on Tuesday that he has refused to endorse a single candidate for prime minister, but has let it be known in the past that he would support al-Jaafari.
Al-Jaafari, who spoke Arabic during the interview, said that recent deals among Iraq's religious parties pointed toward his victory.
"I hear from here and there, but I can't tell to what extent it is a consensus," he said, wearing a blue suit, a polka-dot tie and a neatly trimmed gray beard. "I feel like some of our brothers are convinced, but it takes time to reach consensus."
Al-Jaafari said that if he is confirmed as prime minister, he would first try to stymie the violence that has crippled the country's recovery from decades of war and hardship.
"The security situation is at the top, as it is a pressing element," al-Jaafari said. As a result, he said he would not push for the United States and its allies to withdraw their troops from Iraq any time soon.
"Blood is being spilled, and the land is under attack," he said. "How about if we decided to get these troops out of Iraq?" he said, suggesting that the situation would be much worse than it is now.
But al-Jaafar has kept some distance from the U.S. occupation.
He boycotted a U.S.-organized meeting of Iraqi politicians near the biblical city of Ur in April 2003. While he served on the Governing Council appointed by the U.S. government shortly after the invasion, he turned down the Americans' offer of protection. But he did serve on the council and became vice president of the interim government that replaced it.
In the interview, he said he shares the Kurdish and Shiite desires for federalism in Iraq.
"I am looking for a constitution that would be a clear mirror of the composition of the Iraq people," he said. It should be "based on respecting all Iraqi beliefs and freedoms."
But he opposes any attempts to break Iraq apart, following a nonbinding referendum in the Kurdistan region promoting independence.
"Federalism doesn't mean separation from the nation state," he said.
Even though he leads the Dawa Party, which is part of the clergy-endorsed United Iraqi Alliance, his views contrasted with the official platform on the party's Web site.
The party explicitly urges for the "Islamization" of the Iraqi society and the state, including the implementation of Sharia, or Islamic law.
He dismissed the apparent contradiction, saying only, "theory is different from practice."
Al-Jaafari was born in Karbala, the home of Shiites' holiest shrine, and attended medical school at Mosul University. He joined the Dawa Party in 1966, but left Iraq in 1980 when Saddam cracked down on the party's leaders.
"The same day I left Iraq was the day Saddam's security raided the hospital I was working in, looking for me," he said.
He changed his name from al-Ushayqer to al-Jaafari, fearing that the Iraqi intelligence services would hunt him down. He fled through Syria and spent 10 years in Iran before moving to London to join the Iraqi opposition in exile.
"At the time I left Iraq, all the world's doors were closed in our faces," he said of those who wanted to reform Iraq. "Not like now."
Iraq's election commission will not certify the provisional results of the Jan. 30 elections, announced Sunday, until all challenges are resolved ¡ª a process which could take days or even weeks. On Tuesday, a commission official said at least six complaints had been filed so far. All complaints must be filed by Wednesday.
Once the results are certified, the present government must set a timetable for installing the new government. There have been no indications on how long that might take, and will depend on back-room dealmaking among the parties.
In addition to helping select and approve the prime minister and largely ceremonial president, the assembly will serve as a lawmaking body. But its most important task is to create a committee to draft a permanent constitution.
Iraqis will vote on the proposed constitution by Oct. 15. If they approve, elections for a permanent government to replace the assembly will be held in December. If voters reject the charter, the National Assembly will be dissolved and a new transitional assembly will be elected in December to take another stab at constitution-writing.