Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari is refusing to abandon his bid for a second term, resisting U.S. and British pressure to step aside to break the deadlock over a new government, the embattled leader told a British newspaper in an interview published Wednesday.
Al-Jaafari told The Guardian newspaper that he was rejecting calls to give up the nomination of his Shiite bloc “to protect democracy in Iraq.”
“There is a decision that was reached by a democratic mechanism and I stand with it,” he told the newspaper. “We have to respect our Iraqi people.”
Al-Jaafari’s comments were his first public response to pressure that escalated after Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw flew to Baghdad on Sunday to demand the Iraqis speed up talks on a new government.
Sunni and Kurdish politicians, whom the Shiites need as coalition partners, have called for al-Jaafari’s replacement, arguing that his government failed to restore order and prevent an escalation in tensions between Shiite and Sunni Muslims in recent weeks that threatens civil war.
“People will react if they see the rules of democracy being disobeyed,” al-Jaafari told the newspaper. “Everyone should stick to democratic mechanisms no matter whether they disagree with the person.”
Nevertheless, pressure is mounting on al-Jaafari to step aside, even from within his Shiite political alliance.
During an interview Tuesday with the British Broadcasting Corp., Vice President Adil Abdul-Mahdi said he met with al-Jaafari the day before and urged him to give up the nomination because he had lost the confidence of the Sunnis and Kurds.
But Abdul-Mahdi said al-Jaafari refused, insisting he wanted to take his case to parliament, which must approve the new prime minister and his Cabinet by a majority vote.
Asked whether al-Jaafari should withdraw his nomination, Abdul-Mahdi said: “Yes, after such a time of naming him, not getting approval from others now in UIA (the dominant Shiite political bloc), there is some rejection so I think he should step aside.”
Al-Jaafari beat Abdul-Mahdi for the nomination in February by a single vote at a caucus of the Shiite bloc, which won the most seats in parliamentary elections last December. Al-Jaafari squeaked through largely because he had the support of the powerful anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
U.S. officials have been urging the Iraqis to form a new national unity government of Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds as a first step toward restoring public confidence and halting the country’s slide toward anarchy. The talks have stalled over the demands that al-Jaafari be replaced.
Pressure from the U.S.
The Associated Press reported last week that U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad asked one of Iraq’s most prominent Shiite politicians to seek the withdrawal of al-Jaafari’s nomination for a second term.
“I heard their points of view even though I disagree with them,” al-Jaafari told The Guardian of his talks with Rice and Straw.
President Bush urged the Iraqis on Tuesday to speed up the talks, calling on elected leaders “to stand up and do their job.”
“One way to help bring confidence to the Iraqi people that those few will not be able to determine the future of that country is for there to be unity government that steps up and says, ’I’m willing to lead,”’ Bush said.
Critics blame al-Jaafari for failing to restore order and for the rise in sectarian tensions. His main critics have been Sunnis and Kurds, but last weekend two other prominent Shiite politicians also called for him to step aside as the nominee.
However, Shiite officials fear that replacing him might splinter their alliance, and a Kurdish politician who opposes al-Jaafari said he feared that international pressure to remove him might trigger a backlash among Iraqis angry over foreign influence.
On Tuesday, about 2,500 people marched in support of al-Jaafari in Baghdad’s Sadr City district, carrying banners saying “Down with the Conspiracy” against their candidate.
Shiite officials have been meeting for several days with Sunni and Kurdish leaders urging them to soften their opposition to al-Jaafari.
“I think tomorrow, or the day after things will ease up,” said Shiite politician Khudayer al-Khuzai, who backs the prime minister. “They were understanding the grave repercussions of changing. If al-Jaafari is changed, then the (Shiite) alliance will split. We cannot abandon him because he was democratically elected.”
Blast kills at least 10
Meanwhile, a car bomb exploded Tuesday in a mostly Shiite area of eastern Baghdad, killing at least 10 people.
The bomb went off in the poor, mostly Shiite area of Habibiyah and damaged several cars and nearby sandwich stands, police said. Chaos ensued as militants from radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia fired weapons in the air to clear the crowds.
At least a dozen other Iraqis were killed Tuesday in war-related violence in Baghdad and central Iraq, police said.
They included a mother and two of her sons, 9 and 12, who died when a bomb exploded in front of their home in the capital. A third son, age 13, was wounded, along with two brothers from a different family living in the same home, police said.
Elsewhere in Baghdad, a receptionist at the United Arab Emirates Embassy and his friend — both Iraqis — were slain as they left the building, police said. Insurgents have often targeted diplomats and employees of Arab and Muslim embassies to undermine support for the U.S.-backed government.
Gunmen also killed a judge, an ice cream vendor and his companion and a policeman in separate slayings in the capital, police said.
In Samarra, 60 miles north of Baghdad, a car bomb exploded near a convoy carrying the son of a city council member, killing a security guard and a driver, police said. The council member’s son escaped injury.
In southern Iraq, gunmen killed one policeman and wounded another as the two were driving in the city of Basra, police said. Two mortar rounds exploded near the British consulate in Basra during a reception, causing no injuries but forcing the party to end early, an Associated Press reporter at the event said.
Police in Baghdad also found the bodies of four men, apparent victims of sectarian reprisal killings. It was unclear when they were slain.
The body of a U.S. Marine missing after a weekend vehicle accident was also recovered Tuesday, the U.S. said. Six U.S. troops were killed and two remain missing after the Sunday accident in western Iraq.