BAGHDAD, Iraq—Iraq's leading Shiite Muslim political group showed signs of fracturing this week as it debated whether to choose a secular Shiite or a more religious leader to be the country's prime minister.
The next prime minister will play a crucial role in deciding how the new government tackles the largely Sunni Muslim insurgency, sectarian strife and the economic woes that plague the country. U.S. officials are hoping that Iraq's first permanent government since the fall of Saddam Hussein's dictatorship can stabilize the country, avert a civil war and allow American and other foreign troops to leave.
Members of the Shiite-dominated United Iraqi Alliance slate, which won 128 of the 275 seats in parliament, have narrowed their choice to two candidates, interim Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, who has the backing of the slate's more religious voters, and Vice President Adil Abdel Mahdi, who's more secular.
The slate plans to make its choice Saturday, and that person will seek approval from the full National Assembly. Because the United Iraqi Alliance holds so many seats, its choice is likely to become the prime minister.
The race between al-Jaafari and Mahdi is a tough one. The United Iraqi Alliance, which is made up of four parties, is evenly split and has spent the last week wrangling over how to choose a candidate. The margin of victory could be as little as one vote, said Nasir al-Saadi, a member of the slate.
Choosing al-Jaafari would satisfy much of the United Iraqi Alliance's base, which wants the government to pursue a more Islamist agenda. The supporters of rebel Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who represent nearly half of Baghdad, support al-Jaafari.
But the slate has promised to form a consensus government that all the country's sects embrace, including Sunni Arabs and Kurds. During his one-year tenure, al-Jaafari has angered the country's minority Sunnis, who charge that Iraq's predominantly Shiite military and security forces have targeted them for imprisonment and execution under his leadership.
Some Kurds say they support Mahdi and have been frustrated by al-Jaafari's strained relationship with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd. They also say al-Jaafari didn't do enough to meet Kurdish demands on key issues such as continued autonomy in their northern region.
"The elite look at Mahdi as someone who will build a modern government because of his enlightened thoughts. But Jaafari is much closer to the Shiite Islamic religious leadership," said Hazim Abdel Hamid al-Nuaimi, a professor of politics at al-Mustansiriya University. "Mahdi represents reform. And Jaafari represents the conservative line."
The United Iraqi Alliance members who oppose Mahdi say they were elected to install a more Islamic government, not a more secular one. And many in the slate are happy with the advances that Shiites have made in al-Jaafari's government.
The United Iraqi Alliance members never wanted to vote on their candidate, hoping that they could agree on a leader. They fear that the next prime minister may win support from only half the slate's members, but they reluctantly agreed to the vote because they worry that their lengthy debate is eroding the public's confidence, said Abbas al-Bayati, a member of the slate.
Government leaders conceded that the public had expected a list of candidates for prime minister by now, eight weeks after the Dec. 15 election. With so many Iraqis pinning their hopes on the new governing body, it's important they see efficiency, leaders said.
"Of course this delay is not in the interest of Iraq," said Faraj al-Haidari, a National Assembly member who represents a Kurdish slate. "It will disappoint the street. And all ministries now are on hold. They cannot make decisions to improve the daily life of Iraqis."
Without a candidate, the parties have had a difficult time choosing the rest of the government. Some candidates for key posts said they couldn't decide until they knew what kind of leader Iraq would have.
The prime minister "will define the platform," said Mithal Alusi, a candidate to lead the Ministry of Defense, who's said he won't consider the post until the slate spells out its agenda.
(Knight Ridder Newspapers special correspondents Zaineb Obeid, Ahmed Mukhtar and Huda Ahmed contributed to this report from Baghdad.)
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.