BAGHDAD, Iraq — Iraq’s presidential council was sworn in Thursday and named Shiite Arab Ibrahim al-Jaafari as interim prime minister, the country’s most powerful position, further consolidating the power shift in postwar Iraq.
The long-awaited events will give Iraq its first freely elected government in 50 years, and its third set of interim leaders since the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003.
Al-Jaafari has two weeks to name his Cabinet, allowing the new government to begin work on its primary task: drafting a permanent constitution. If approved, the constitution will pave the way for elections for a permanent government in December.
Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani was also sworn in as Iraq’s new interim president, reaching out to Sunnis by urging "our Sunni brothers to participate in the democratic march.”
The president’s post is mostly ceremonial and his biggest task is naming the prime minister, who is expected to run the government’s day-to-day business and control the budget.
Adel Abdul-Mahdi, a Shiite, and former interim President Ghazi al-Yawer, a Sunni Arab, were sworn in as vice presidents.
Outgoing Prime Minister Ayad Allawi turned in his resignation but was asked to stay in a caretaker position until a new Cabinet is named.
Third set of interim leaders
The long-awaited events gave Iraq its first freely elected government in 50 years, and its third set of interim leaders since the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003. Once the Cabinet is finalized — likely sometime next week — the new government will begin working on drafting a permanent constitution.
Al-Jaafari’s rise to the prime minister’s job will solidify the rise to power of majority Shiites and minority Kurds after decades of brutal oppression under Saddam’s Sunni-dominated regime.
Shiites, who comprise some 60 percent of Iraq’s 26 million population, have a majority of seats in the National Assembly, while Kurds have the second-largest bloc. Sunni Arabs have disproportionately few seats, largely because many boycotted the Jan. 30 elections or stayed home for fear of attacks at the polls. Kurds make up about 20 percent of the population, while Sunnis make up 15 percent to 20 percent of the population.
Al-Jaafari spent more than two decades in exile, mostly in Britain and Iran, helping to lead anti-Saddam opposition forces in the Islamic Dawa Party, Iraq’s first Shiite Islamic political party. He also has close ties to Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s most influential Shiite cleric. Al-Jaafari’s wife is a distant relative of al-Sistani’s.
Demands for security
Newspaper headlines announced al-Jaafari’s expected appointment Thursday. But many Iraqis, jaded by two years of conflict, said they would wait for results from the new government before celebrating.
“We, as Iraqis, are demanding security first,” said Kadim Jassib, a 32-year-old Shiite vendor. “This is a very important point, and the other problems will resolve themselves automatically. Then, we can ask the coalition troops to withdraw from Iraq.”
Saddam and 11 of his top aides were given the choice of watching a tape of Wednesday’s National Assembly session in their prison and all chose to do so, said Bakhtiar Amin, human rights minister in the outgoing interim government.
Amin said Saddam watched by himself, while the others viewed it as a group.
“I imagine (Saddam) was upset,” Amin said. “He must have realized that the era of his government was over, and that there was no way he was returning to office.”
Sunni groups remain distant
After he was named to the presidency, Talabani urged Iraqi insurgents, who are believed to be mostly Sunni Arabs, to begin talks. But prominent Sunni Arab groups distanced themselves from the new government — even though some Sunni leaders were give top posts.
“We are not related to any process in this matter of choosing candidates,” Muthana al-Dhari, spokesman for the Association of Muslim Scholars, a Sunni group, told Al-Jazeera satellite television.
Lawmakers have been in ongoing negotiations over Cabinet nominees who will manage government ministries. And they have yet to delve into their primary task: drafting a permanent constitution, which is supposed to be finished by Aug. 15.
South of Baghdad, a lawmaker in former interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi’s coalition in parliament said Thursday he survived an assassination attempt after the assembly meeting the prior day. Skeikh Maad Jasim Mizhir al-Samarmad, also head of the Zubid tribes in Iraq, said he was attacked by gunmen in the al-Wihda district, 20 miles south of the capital.
In ongoing religious violence, a Shiite shrine was destroyed Thursday by assailants who planted explosives in the structure in the Latifiya area, 35 miles south of Baghdad, according to Babil police spokesman Muthana Khalid. The al-Khudir shrine was destroyed by armed men who arrived in several vehicles, Khalid said.
On Wednesday, an Internet statement, purportedly from the terrorist group al-Qaida in Iraq, claimed responsibility for the kidnapping of a senior Interior Ministry official, Brig. Gen. Jala Mohammed Saleh. The statement could not be independently verified.
Saleh, involved in anti-insurgency operations, was kidnapped Tuesday by gunmen who broke into his house in Baghdad.
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