Friday, April 21, 2006

Shiites choose nominee for Iraq prime minister

USATODAY.com - Shiites choose nominee for Iraq prime minister:

"BAGHDAD (AP) — The Shiite alliance nominated a tough-talking Shiite politician, Jawad al-Maliki, as prime minister Friday in a move that breaks the long impasse over forming a new government aimed at pulling Iraq out of its sectarian strife.

Al-Maliki replaces outgoing Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, whose attempt to stay for a second term had raised sharp opposition from Sunni Arab and Kurdish leaders and caused a deadlock that lasted months as the country's security crisis worsened in the wake of last December's election.

ON DEADLINE BLOG: Who is Maliki?

Sunni and Kurdish politicians signaled they would accept al-Maliki — a close ally of al-Jaafari in the Shiite Dawa Party — clearing the way for parliament on Saturday to elect top leadership positions, including the president, and launch the process of putting together a government.

U.S. and Iraqi officials are hoping that a national unity government representing Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds will be able to quell both the Sunni-led insurgency and bloody Shiite-Sunni violence that has raged during the political uncertainty. If it succeeds, it could enable the U.S. to begin bringing home its 133,000 troops.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan said the Bush administration is hopeful that the latest political developments in Iraq will lead to significant progress in forming a permanent government.

'We hope to see good progress in the coming days,' McClellan told reporters traveling with President Bush to California. 'We'll be watching.'

Violence continued Friday with at least 21 people killed, including six in a car bombing in Tal Afar and six off-duty Iraqi soldiers slain in Beiji, police said. The U.S. military announced that a Marine was fatally injured in combat Thursday in Anbar province.

Al-Maliki has a reputation as a hardline, outspoken defender of the Shiite stance — raising questions over whether he will be able to negotiate the delicate sectarian balancing act.

From exile in Syria in the 1980s and 1990s, he directed Dawa guerrillas fighting Saddam Hussein's regime. Since returning home after Saddam's fall, he has been a prominent member of the commission purging former Baath Party officials from the military and government. Sunni Arabs, who made up the backbone of Saddam's ousted party, deeply resent the commission.

Al-Maliki was also a tough negotiator in drawn-out deliberations over a new constitution that was passed last year despite Sunni Arab objections. He resisted U.S. efforts to put more Sunnis on the drafting committee as well as Sunni efforts to water down provisions giving Shiites and Kurds the power to form semiautonomous mini-states in the north and south.

In talks Friday, the largest party in the seven-member Shiite alliance — the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq — initially pushed for the nomination of another Dawa party leader, Ali al-Adeeb, seen as more moderate and less likely to alienate Sunnis.

But Dawa insisted on al-Maliki, who is closer to al-Jaafari. Al-Adeeb, who spent part of his 20-year exile in Iran, was said to have frequent conflicts with al-Jaafari.

SCIRI backed off as Sunnis and Kurds said they could accept al-Maliki, apparently out of eagerness to end the political deadlock as long as al-Jaafari was out of the picture.

'If anyone is nominated except al-Jaafari, we won't put any obstacles in his way. He will receive our support,' Adnan al-Dulaimi, head of the main Sunni Arab coalition in parliament, told The Associated Press.

Saleh al-Mutlaq, a leading Sunni politician who was also in the constitutional drafting committee, said al-Maliki is 'firmer and a much more insistent' person than al-Jaafari. But he said that despite his toughness, al-Maliki was 'practical' and more flexible.

'I think if al-Maliki worked hard to get rid of his Baath party complexes, he will succeed,' al-Mutlaq said.

Sunnis and Kurds had blamed the rise of sectarian tensions on al-Jaafari for failing to rein in Shiite militias and Interior Ministry commandos, accused by the Sunnis of harboring death squads. Those parties refused to join any government headed by al-Jaafari.

Al-Jaafari, who has served as prime minister since April 2005, was nominated by the alliance for a second term in February by a one-vote margin, relying on support from radical, anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

Since then, al-Jaafari had stalwartly rejected pressure to give up the post, until Iraq's most powerful Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, sent word that he should go. On Thursday, al-Jaafari gave the alliance the go-ahead to pick a new nominee.

With the deal on al-Maliki, Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish parties were set to fill the other top posts of government in a parliament vote expected Saturday, said Humam Hammoudi, the spokesman for the Shiite alliance.

Shiite lawmaker Ridha Jawad Taqi said all sides were agreed on a package deal for the top spots: Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, would remain as president for a second term, with Sunni Arab Tariq al-Hashimi and Shiite Adil Abdul-Mahdi holding the two vice president spots."

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