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Leading Iraqi prime minister candidate embraces Islamic influence

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Ibrahim al-Jaafari, who emerged Wednesday as the favorite to be the next Iraqi prime minister, is almost certain to bring a stronger Islamic influence into the Iraqi government should he win the post.

Exactly how much Islam influences the constitution and the government could determine whether Iraqis are divided along sectarian lines and whether the United States can realize plans for democracy in Iraq.

Top leaders from the United Iraqi Alliance, the leading Shiite Muslim coalition, continued meeting Wednesday to hash out who would be named their prime minister. A secret ballot in the coming days seemed increasingly likely, with al-Jaafari the almost certain winner.

Al-Jaafari, currently Iraq's interim vice president, says he wants to build a unified Iraq with equal room for religious and secular leaders. But the party he leads has received support from theocratic Iran in the past and has the ultimate goal of creating an Islamic state, according to Jawad Talib, a top al-Jaafari adviser and a friend since childhood.

"Can Islam be applied now? No. We cannot do it now because the situation is not right for applying Islam," Talib said. "But that does not mean we do not prefer an Islamic state."

Al-Jaafari, who leads the Dawa Party, became the leading candidate for prime minister after Adil Abdel Mahdi, of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq party, pulled out of the race. Both are members of the alliance, a slate of Shiite Muslim candidates pulled together at the request of Iraq's leading Islamic cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. The alliance won handily in the election, garnering 48 percent of the vote and winning 140 out of the 275-seat transitional national assembly.

Ahmad Chalabi is a third alliance candidate for prime minister, but several officials with the alliance said Wednesday that his chances were slim. Chalabi, once the favorite of the Bush administration, is a Shiite Muslim like al-Jaafari and Mahdi, but a secularist.

Al-Jaafari told Knight Ridder last year that he had no interest in creating another Iran. The Iranian constitution gives ultimate political power to unelected religious clerics and is widely viewed as a failed political system in the Middle East, though it's not the only possible model for an Islamic government.

Al-Jaafari, 58, who has a neatly trimmed salt-and-pepper beard and speaks softly, said fears about politicians who adhere to Shiite Islam tend to be hyperbolic and unfair.

During the 1980s, his Dawa Party conducted a guerrilla-style campaign against Saddam Hussein as the dictator's forces rounded up, tortured and killed many of its members. Iran supported Dawa's effort. When al-Jaafari fled Iraq, he went to Iran before making his way to London, where he continued his work as a doctor. He remained an exile for some 20 years before returning to Iraq after the American invasion in 2003.

The Iranian-born al-Sistani continues to exert considerable influence over Dawa and the alliance.

"We are discussing all current political issues with al-Sistani," said Humam Hamoudi, a top official with the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq. "We will not do anything without consulting al Sistani."

Sadoun al-Dulame, the director of a Baghdad-based think tank, said al-Jaafari isn't beholden only to al-Sistani, but added that he eventually will pursue an Islamic constitution and then an Islamic state.

"The Shiites want to say that the Sharia (Islamic law) is the only source for all laws. If they put this article in the constitution they will build on it later," said al-Dulame, who's a Sunni, the minority sect in Iraq that deeply mistrusts Shiites and the alliance. "Al-Jaafari is still dreaming about these things."

Al-Jaafari has been an advocate for the town of Najaf, Sistani's home and the epicenter of Shiite leadership for Iraq, repeatedly doing the bidding of religious authorities.

Last March, he was one of five members of the now-defunct governing council who initially refused to sign a transitional constitution drafted largely by the American administration in Baghdad. He did so because al-Sistani disagreed with key provisions, including one that would allow a veto of the permanent constitution by a two-thirds vote in three provinces. There were concerns that secular Kurds to the north would use that power to veto a Shiite-backed constitution.

After signing the document, al-Jaafari read a proclamation from al-Sistani asking for further negotiations about the veto issue.

In August, al-Jaafari broke with the Iraqi government by calling for a withdrawal of American troops from Najaf, where they were fighting a rebel Shiite militia.

Asked about al-Jaafari , Yonadam Kanna, a Christian who served with him on the governing council, chose his words carefully.

"Jaafari's ideology is the same as the Dawa Party's ideology: It is moderate and does not show extremism or fanaticism. In general, the Shiites in Iraq do not believe in clerical rule," he said. "That's what they say. But I don't know what's in their hearts."


(Knight Ridder Newspapers special correspondents Huda Ahmed and Shatha al Awsy contributed from Baghdad.)


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.