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Shiites select Al-Jaafari as prime minister

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Shiite lawmakers Sunday named interim Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, a devout Iranian-backed politician, to be their new prime minister.

The move solidifies Iraq's transition to a religiously based democratic government, although Sunnis, Kurds and sectarian Iraqis all faulted the choice. Many feel al-Jaafari did too little to quell Iraq's growing sectarianism and violence and failed to rebuild the country's crumbling infrastructure during his nearly one-year interim tenure.

Many Sunnis and Kurds preferred al-Jaafari's more moderate and progressive Shiite opponent, interim vice president Adil Abdel Mahdi. But Mahdi lost by one vote, 64-63, among Shiite electors. Although still only their nominee, al-Jaafari will likely win support from the full parliament because his slate holds 128 of the governing body's 275 seats.

U.S. officials hope that al-Jaafari can assemble a coalition government that draws in enough Sunni support to drain backing for the Sunni-led insurgency that threatens to ignite a civil war. Were the insurgency to fade, American and allied troops could leave.

That hope seemed distant Sunday as leaders of the Sunni Iraqi Islamic Party said they did not rule out walking away from an al-Jaafari-led government.

The mild-mannered al-Jaafari, 59, is a physician and his Dawa Party is one Iraq's oldest and most aggressive opponents to Saddam Hussein's regime. For many, the party represents the most oppressed and tortured during the dictatorship.

Al-Jaafari may have caused some trouble in his acceptance statement, however. He vowed in it to uphold the country's constitution, a non-controversial position normally, but some Sunni leaders are insisting on changes in the constitution because it was written largely without their input.

"The main basis for dialogue will primarily be the constitution, respect for the constitution and its contents," said al-Jaafari, noting that Iraqis had ratified the document in a referendum in October.

Among Iraq's Sunni populace, disappointment was clear.

"We said to ourselves, `Let's give Adil Abdel Mahdi a try,' because al-Jaafari did not accomplish the needs of the Iraqi people," said Mohammed Ayad, 48, a Sunni and former Army officer. "We have tried Jaafari already and the security situation got worse, the economy is weaker and there are more random raids."

Some Kurdish leaders also expressed dismay, largely over al-Jaafari's failure to deal with issues key to them. The biggest of these are the autonomy of their region and the normalization of the northern, oil-rich city of Kirkuk, to which many Kurds, ousted by Saddam, want to return, recover property and rebuild lives.

The head of the powerful Kurdish Coalition, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, told reporters that he would not support al-Jaafari and the Shiite coalition unless it offers cabinet positions to the secularist party of former premier Ayad Allawi, a U.S. and Kurdish ally.

Al-Jaafari tried to reach out to his critics, saying: "We do not reject any groups except taking into consideration all the national unity and the interest of the country."

His supporters acknowledged that he needed to do more, but offered no clues as to what he might do differently.

"He has lead for nine months. He has learned a lot from that experience," said Adnan Ali, a senior adviser to al-Jaafari.

The alliance agonized over its choice for most of week, desperate to avoid Sunday's vote because they feared it would split the slate. And it did.

Al-Jaafari's Dawa Party, and the Sadrists, supporters of rebel cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, backed the current prime minister. Mahdi's Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution of Iraq and the slate's two moderate parties supported the vice president.

When the slate could agree on a candidate, they reluctantly voted. But al-Jaafari vowed that the slate will remain united.

In the southern Shiite holy city of Najaf, many celebrated al-Jaafari's nomination, saying he represented the will of the majority.

"Jaafari treated all people equally. He didn't discriminate. We felt a sense of justice and calmness in his political speeches," said Hameed Ali Lafta, 33, a businessman in Najaf. "This is enough for him to be prime minister."

With al-Jaafari likely becoming prime minister, top leaders said they now are focused on filling in the rest of the government. Most important will be the Minister of Interior, which runs the security forces. Sunnis are especially concerned about this post, saying that largely Shiite forces are targeting their neighborhoods in raids.

While selecting al-Jaafari to head the permanent government, the Shiite parties also left themselves an out: As a condition to taking office, al-Jaafari must sign a resignation letter, agreeing to leave his post if he's defeated in a no confidence vote.

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(Knight Ridder Newspapers special correspondents Ahmed Mukhtar, Mohammed al Awsy and Mohammed al Dulaimy contributed to this report.)

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): al-Jaafari

ARCHIVE GRAPHIC on KRT Direct (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20050624 USIRAQ Jaafari

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