Embattled Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari cleared the way Thursday for Shiite leaders to withdraw his nomination for a second term, a step that could break a months-long standoff that is blocking the formation of a new government.
Shiite lawmakers planned to meet Saturday to decide whether to replace al-Jaafari, who faced fierce opposition from Iraq’s Kurdish and Sunni Arab parties.
“The alliance is leaning toward changing (the nomination). The majority opinion is in favor of this,” said Bassem Sharif, a lawmaker in the seven-party Shiite coalition.
The move represents the first sign that al-Jaafari has abandoned his quest to keep the prime minister’s post, only a day after he had repeated his steadfast refusal to step down.
The United States had put strong pressure on the Shiites to resolve the standoff quickly so they could form a government able to stabilize Iraq amid increasing sectarian violence.
The dramatic announcement was made shortly before a planned session of the Iraqi parliament to try to jump-start formation of a new government. The Shiites asked that the session be postponed until Saturday or Sunday, after they resolve the issue of al-Jaafari’s nomination, said Shiite official Ridha Jawad Taqi.
Al-Jaafari 'not sticking to this post'
Jawad al-Maliki, spokesman for the prime minister’s Dawa party, told reporters that “circumstances and updates had occurred” prompting al-Jaafari to refer the nomination back to the alliance “so that it take the appropriate decision.”
Al-Maliki said the prime minister was not stepping down but “he is not sticking to this post.”
Al-Maliki and another leading Dawa politician, Ali al-Adeeb, have been touted as possible replacements for al-Jaafari.
The largest bloc in parliament, with 130 lawmakers, the Shiite alliance gets to name the prime minister subject to parliament approval. But the Shiites lack the votes in the 275-member parliament to guarantee their candidate’s approval unless they have the backing of the Sunnis and Kurds, whom they need as partners to govern.
The Sunnis and Kurds, however, rejected al-Jaafari, blaming him for the recent rise in secular tensions in Iraq.
Al-Jaafari won the alliance nomination two months ago by only one vote, relying on support from radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
With the deadlock dragging on, more Shiite lawmakers have shown a willingness to dump him — though they have been reluctant to do so overtly and break the coalition. Al-Jaafari, meanwhile, repeatedly refused to step aside, saying as recently as Wednesday that doing do was “out of the question.”
President Bush on Wednesday urged the Iraqis to “step up and form a unity government so that those who went to the polls to vote recognize that a government will be in place to respond to their needs.”
Resolution of the prime minister issue could smooth the way for filling other posts, including the president, two vice presidents, parliament speaker and the two deputy speakers. The Shiites could block Sunni and Kurdish candidates for those positions in retaliation for the standoff over al-Jaafari.
Late Wednesday, the Sunnis decided to support Adnan al-Dulaimi for speaker, a post held by a Sunni Arab in the last parliament.
Thursday’s parliament session was intended to vote on the parliament speaker and his deputies. But in the wake of al-Jaafari’s announcement, the Shiite coalition said it would not attend and asked that the session be put off until the weekend.
Parliament leaders were meeting to decide whether to hold the session. Lawmakers have met briefly only once since the Dec. 15 election.
Iraqi leaders are under enormous pressure from the United States and Britain to form a new national unity government to stem the country’s slide toward chaos and enable Washington and London to show political progress to electorates becoming ever more skeptical of Iraq policy.
No letup to bloodshed
Sectarian tensions have been running high since the Feb. 22 bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra and the reprisal attacks against Sunni mosques and clerics that followed.
Early Thursday, gunmen attacked a Sunni mosque in the southern Baghdad district of Saidiya, sparking an hour-long clash before dawn with mosque guards and residents.
There were no casualties, but the walls of the mosque and nearby houses were damaged, police 1st. Lt. Thair Mahmoud said.
In the nearby Um al-Maalif district, gunmen killed two Sadrist militiamen in a drive-by shooting, police said. Elsewhere, the bodies of two al-Sadr loyalists were found late Wednesday.
The interim government blamed Sunni Arab insurgents for fierce clashes that erupted earlier this week in another Sunni area of the capital and underlined the deep distrust between the country’s communities.
U.S. officials said the violence broke out Monday when attackers fired on Iraqi army patrols and a joint U.S.-Iraqi checkpoint in the northern district of Azamiyah. At least 13 people were killed before calm was restored Tuesday.
But Azamiyah residents said they took up arms when Shiite militias and commandos of the Interior Ministry moved into the area. Many Sunnis consider those groups little more than death squads.
In a statement late Wednesday, the prime minister’s office denied any ministry forces were involved, and said three insurgent groups provoked the clashes by purporting to be Shiite militiamen and Interior Ministry commandos.
The statement identified the three insurgent groups as the Islamic Army of Iraq, the 1920 Revolution Brigades and al-Qaida in Iraq.
According to the statement, insurgents “have received orders to send elements to Baghdad for armed displays and to destabilize the city because of its political, demographic and media importance.”