BAGHDAD, Iraq—In the race for Iraq's new parliament, voters don't know the names of most of the candidates. But in the race for prime minister—which hasn't even begun yet—political watchers already have reduced the list of candidates to two.
The first is the interim prime minister, Ayad Allawi, the most visible and prominent politician since the Americans turned control of the government over to Iraqis last summer.
The other is Adil Abdel Mahdi, the interim finance minister, who some think is the most likely person to head the government that will emerge after the Jan. 30 election.
Mahdi is a member of the slate of candidates offered by the United Iraqi Alliance, the Shiite Muslim alliance backed tacitly by Iraq's most influential cleric, the Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani. Most observers here expect the United Iraqi Alliance to dominate the voting and that a member of its slate will be selected as prime minister.
No outside government, including the United States, which selected Allawi for his interim post, officially will have a say in naming the new prime minister. The choice will be made by a president and two vice presidents, who are to be chosen by the newly elected 275-member National Assembly.
Yet the United States is watching the process closely, diplomats say. Mahdi flew to Washington twice last year, including to an economic forum in October, when he met with President Bush and top members of the administration.
A Western diplomat who asked not to be named said Mahdi appealed to U.S. officials as a moderate candidate. But some wonder whether the moderate views that Mahdi expresses are sincere or whether he's posturing to win over moderate Shiites who may not be swayed solely by a call from Sistani.
In an interview with Knight Ridder, Mahdi said he saw a government that respected all citizens' religious rights, one that worked closely with coalitions including rival Sunni Muslims or secularists, and a legal system where "the final judge, really, is law," not religion.
Mahdi said he thought the new constitution probably would resemble the existing one, crafted with the help of Americans last year. That interim constitution is secular.
He said he was meeting with Sunni Muslim religious leaders to encourage their participation in the election.
"I think the main character of this election is one of constituency instead of sectarianism," Mahdi said.
But his political alliance suggests he's more of an Islamist. Besides being a member of a slate that's allied with the ayatollah, Mahdi is a member of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, which many consider so fundamentally Shiite that it leaves no room for moderates or Sunnis.
Mahdi, "whether he likes it or not, is a member of SCIRI, which is a religious political party," said Aziz Jaber Shial, a professor of political science at Baghdad University. "And his being from SCIRI makes his influence only in the southern regions. He won't be acceptable to everybody."
Some Iraq specialists think it's unlikely that Mahdi will remain so moderate if he takes office.
"I think Mahdi is being a politician," said Juan Cole, a history professor at the University of Michigan who specializes in Shiite Islam. "It may affect his credibility, but it doesn't matter. It all changes Jan. 31," the day after the election.
Western diplomats concede they aren't sure if Mahdi is being sincere. Even if he's a true moderate, they wonder whether he'll be loyal to his party or his personal views.
Allawi's supporters aren't convinced that Mahdi will unseat the interim prime minister, even if Allawi's slate doesn't control the National Assembly. They point out that Mahdi's positions are unknown, and Allawi has worked hard to avoid the sectarianism that's become a theme of the campaign.
"Allawi to a certain extent represents nationalism," Shial said, because he can't be defined as of a particular sect.
Mahdi wasn't always a top contender for the prime minister's post. Just a few weeks ago, political thinkers were considering Vice President Ibrahim al Jaafari, a moderate and a politician who consistently ranks as Iraq's most popular. Al Jaafari also is a member of the United Iraqi Alliance.
But he's considered too timid for the role of prime minister, Shial said.
"He is a highly regarded man, but the problem is nobody knows his opinion about many issues. He did not leave a footprint" as vice president, Shial said.
Another United Iraqi Alliance contender was Hussein Shahristani, a close Sistani aide. But his ties to Sistani could fuel the growing divide between Sunnis and Shiites.
"For a prime minister, you will need a person who would be acceptable socially and by all political entities," Shial said. "If we have someone from a certain sect leading us, that will only divide us. We need a secular government."
(Knight Ridder special correspondent Shatha R. Alawsy contributed to this report.)
HOW THE VOTING WORKS
Iraqi voters are selecting a National Assembly on Jan. 30, but will vote only once, for a specific political slate, in picking the 275-member body. Individual members will be assigned seats in the assembly based on the proportion of the vote their slate received.
For example, a slate that receives 30 percent of the ballots would be assigned 30 percent of the seats. The people who'd take those seats would be drawn from a list of candidates the slate made up before the elections and ranked in the order in which the seats were to be assigned.
After the National Assembly takes office, its first order of business will be to select an Iraqi president and two vice presidents. The president and each vice president must receive two-thirds of the assembly's votes.
Those three officials then will select the prime minister.
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.