BAGHDAD, Iraq—The dominant Shiite Muslim political ticket on Tuesday picked its candidate for prime minister: Ibrahim al-Jaafari, a man who some fear could lead the nation toward theocracy.
The 58-year-old doctor got the nod after several days of intense negotiations behind closed doors when onetime Pentagon favorite Ahmad Chalabi withdrew under heavy pressure by the United Iraqi Alliance, the cleric-led Shiite coalition that won a majority of seats in the new National Assembly.
Al-Jaafari is likely to get the two-thirds majority of assembly votes he needs to win appointment by means of a deal with the main Kurdish ticket, which has been promised the less-powerful presidency. That post is to be filled by veteran Kurdish politician Jalal Talabani.
Although al-Jaafari's term would last only until the end of the year, when Iraq is scheduled to hold new elections, he'll oversee the crucial process of drafting Iraq's permanent constitution. The drafting of the constitution has the potential to split the nation along ethnic lines or to draw it toward stability and democracy.
Although al-Jaafari maintains that he'll pursue an inclusive, democratic nation, his past has given rise to fears that he may wish Shiite Islam to play a dominant role in the government.
"Jaafari is not a fundamentalist or an extremist," said Wael Abdul Latif, the interim minister of state for provinces. "But he is an Islamist."
Popular reaction to al-Jaafari's selection was muted.
"It doesn't matter if he is an Arab, Kurd or Christian. We want someone who will make our lives better," said Kamel Ali, a construction worker in Baghdad's Sadr City neighborhood, repeating the sentiment of many Iraqis. "We're sick of hearing the word `security' every day."
Al-Jaafari is the senior leader of the Dawa Party, a group that in the past has called for creating an Islamic state in Iraq.
The United Iraqi Alliance—of which Dawa is a main component—formed under the guidance of the top Shiite cleric in Iraq, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, whom al-Jaafari has consulted with frequently in the past.
Al-Jaafari has acknowledged keeping a close relationship with a group that split from the Dawa Party—the Islamic Dawa Party of Iraq.
The Islamic Dawa party holds 14 of the United Iraqi Alliance's seats in the National Assembly. Part of its platform is clerical rule of Iraq in which the source of all legislation is the Quran, Islam's holy book. The party also wants a national court stacked with clerics who would evaluate laws for their adherence to Islam, a proposal similar to Iran's system.
The deal in the works with Kurdish politicians could set the tone for the new government. The Kurds, secular Sunni Muslims, are aiming for control of Tamim province, which includes the ethnically split city of Kirkuk and one of the nation's largest oil fields, representing billions of dollars in exports. They might be persuaded to accept a Shiite Islam-influenced constitution in exchange.
Many in the United Iraqi Alliance have called for a strict review of government employees who were members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party. Some, including al-Jaafari, have used the word "purify" to describe what they want to achieve. Such talk has raised worries of a purge that could further alienate Sunnis, who made up much of the Baath Party's ranks and are the insurgency's strongest backers.
But Al-Jaafari told Knight Ridder he'd reach out to Sunnis.
"If we are not going to involve them with the government, what does this mean? This means we are going to push them to the opposite side," he said. "They will act more or less with (Abu Masab al) Zarqawi," the Jordanian-born terrorist leader who has claimed responsibility for much of Iraq's violence.
Al-Jaafari speaks of the political process with wariness.
"Authority is bigger than the government. I didn't start with the government from the beginning, and I am going to continue also after government," he said. "The most important thing is I have to do what I believe."
Even when sitting in his office, directly in front of an interviewer, al-Jaafari is reclusive. He speaks in a whisper while barely moving his lips, and shuts his eyes often during conversation. He avoids talk about the Dawa Party—which formed to counter secular parties in Iraq and was led for years by a man who idolized the late Iranian leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini—and prefers not to discuss its past views about theocracy.
Al-Jaafari wears dark Western-style suits, but his staff calls him Sayyid, a reference to his lineage to the prophet Muhammad.
Al-Jaafari grew up in the southern town of Karbala—in the shadow of the resting place of Shiite martyr Imam Hussein—and attended medical school in Mosul. In high school he joined the Dawa Party, which at the time called for overthrowing Iraq's secular regime in favor of an Islamic state, and he was an undercover operative in his college days.
The Dawa Party engaged in tit-for-tat violence with Saddam during the 1970s, and al-Jaafari fled the country for Iran in 1980, then England. When he left the country he took the name al-Jaafari for fear that his family name, al-Eshaiker, would make it possible for Saddam's security forces to follow him.
His own family, he said, wouldn't recognize the name Ibrahim al-Jaafari.
He speaks in ciphers and parables.
Asked whether Iraq should be an Islamic state, he talked about the political evolution of the Soviet Union, possibly indicating his own evolution from a youthful radical calling for revolution to a mature politician with room for democracy.
But he offered no help in deconstructing the polemic. During a subsequent interview, when pressed to explain his discourse on Soviet history, he answered: "I think it's not suitable for me to talk about myself ... really, I feel shy."
For all his evasiveness, al-Jaafari, who has a salt and pepper beard and a sage's grin, is a charming man with the air of an aesthete who enjoys sharing a cup of tea. At a meeting with Knight Ridder last year, he insisted on sitting in his front yard and eating dates under the nighttime sky.
He hosts private poetry readings, "about politics, sentimental things and love." When aides come to rush him—there's an Iraqi minister waiting outside or a diplomat on the phone—he ignores them and continues the conversation at hand.
During an interview last week, al-Jaafari recited one of his poems that, laced with classical Arabic, sing the praises of Iraq. Its last lines: "If a strong man wants to reach a star / It will bend as willingly as a crescent."
The crescent moon is a symbol of Islam, and those words could suggest that the way to glory is through religion. Al-Jaafari didn't say.
(Special correspondents Yasser al Salihee and Mohammed al Awsy contributed to this story from Baghdad.)
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): PRIMEMINISTER
GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20050222 USIRAQ Jaafari