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Iraq | International

Three Shia rivals emerge in tussle to be PM
by UK Guardian
Sunday Feb 13th, 2005 6:08 PM
Contenders include former exile who misled US on weapons as final voting tally confirms sweeping victory for United Iraqi Alliance
Rory Carroll in Baghdad
Monday February 14, 2005
The Guardian

Three rivals within the Shia-dominated coalition which triumphed in Iraq's election moved swiftly last night to bid for the job of prime minister.

Ibrahim al-Jaafari and Adel Abdul Mahdi are barely known outside the country and Ahmad Chalabi is more infamous than famous. Yet one of them is expected to become overnight a crucial player in the Middle East.

Yesterday's announcement of the final tally from the January 30 election confirmed a sweeping victory for the United Iraqi Alliance, though its 47.6% of votes cast was lower than some predictions.

It was enough, however, for leaders of the three main groupings within the coalition to advance their claim for the most powerful post in government, working the phones late into the night and sending emissaries to potential allies.

After the drama of election day when millions voted despite threats from insurgents, politics will now become a game of largely behind-the-scenes deal making between and within coalitions.

Trailing far behind the Shia list was a Kurdish alliance with 26% and a list headed by the outgoing prime minister, Ayad Allawi, with 13.8%, giving the United Iraqi Alliance a strong claim over the prime ministership, a more powerful job than the presidency or national assembly chair.

It will be the first time that Shias, comprising 60% of the population, have ruled Iraq after decades of domination by the minority Sunnis. The three leading candidates are secular male Shias who were exiled under Saddam Hussein's regime but otherwise have little in common.

Many analysts consider the favourite to be Mr Mahdi, 63, an economist who served as finance minister in the outgoing interim government. The son of a guerrilla who fought the British in the 1920s, he joined the Ba'ath party in the 1960s when it espoused Arab nationalism and socialist economics but says he quit the movement in 1964 when members like Saddam moved up the ranks by killing opponents.

Mr Mahdi fled to France, where he obtained degrees in politics and economics and dabbled in Maoism before moving to Iran and joining the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (Sciri), a group of exiles who campaigned for Saddam's over throw and an Islamic-guided government in their homeland. Some analysts wonder whether the urbane Mr Mahdi is a front man for hardliners within his party who want an Iran-style theocracy in Iraq guided by the country's leading Shia cleric.

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani is credited as the architect of the Shia coalition who gathered rival parties under one banner. The 76-year-old cleric will retain influence regardless of who becomes prime minister.

Mr Mahdi's main rival is Mr Jaafari, 57, a physician who polls suggest is Iraq's most popular politician after the grand ayatollah. Dr Jaafari, who was exiled in Britain, is considered a moderate.

Security was so tight around his compound in Baghdad's heavily protected green zone yesterday that visitors were asked to remove all equipment, including watches.

"If asked to be prime minister I would be willing to serve our nation," he said. "We have a responsibility now to work together for the sake of the people. They have made this magnificent gesture and we should all take it seriously and make it work." He advocated an inclusive administration that would respect the Kurds' mandate and reach out to Sunnis who abstained en masse from the election, partly because of threats from insurgents such as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi: "It is a present to Zarqawi if we push them from the government."

The third candidate, Mr Chalabi, is known internationally for heading a group of Iraqi exiles which fed Washington inaccurate reports of Saddam's weapons of mass destruction.

The failure to find any weapons contributed to a breach with the US administration and a raid on his house by American soldiers last year. Dogged by a 1992 conviction for embezzlement, Mr Chalabi was said to be one of Iraq's most unpopular politicians. But having got his party into the United Iraqi Alliance, he has courted an eclectic mix of pro-western Shias as well as Islamic radicals, giving him an outside chance of the prime minister's job if the two main candidates are deadlocked.

Falling out with the Americans boosted his credibility with Iraqis fed up with the occupation, Mr Chalabi's deputy, Mudhar Shawkat, said yesterday. "It was to his benefit."

Without fanfare, a senior US diplomat recently visited Mr Chalabi to restore relations.

The next moves

· After three days, the election results will be certified, if no complaints about the tally are upheld. A 275-member national assembly will be formed, its composition determined by the share of the vote each list of candidates receives

· The assembly will elect a presidency council consisting of a president and two deputies. The council must have the backing of two-thirds of the assembly

· The three-person council will elect a prime minister and a cabinet. The prime minister and cabinet will seek approval from the national assembly in a vote of confidence. They need only a simple majority, 138 votes. The government can then start work

· The national assembly will draw up a draft constitution for Iraq by August 15 2005 Once the constitution is drafted, it must be presented to the Iraqi people for approval in a referendum no later than October 15 2005

·If the constitution is approved, a general election will be held by December 15 2005, and the resulting government will take office before the end of the year. If the constitution is rejected by the electorate, the national assembly will be dissolved and an election for a new assembly will take place by December 15 2005

http://www.guardian.co.uk/Iraq/Story/0,2763,1412294,00.html