Shiites set for secret vote on PM candidate

/ Source: The Associated Press

Ahmad Chalabi, a secular Shiite once known for his ties to Washington, and Ibrahim al-Jaafari, the conservative interim vice president, will face off in a secret ballot Tuesday to determine who will be the Shiite majority’s choice for Iraqi prime minister, officials said.

The decision to hold a secret ballot came after the clergy-backed United Iraqi Alliance, which has most of the seats in the 275-member National Assembly, was unable to decide on a nominee — despite days of negotiations.

Chalabi spokesman Haidar al-Moussawi said the most powerful man in predominantly Shiite Iraq, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, met with interim Finance Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi in the southern city of Najaf and gave his backing for whatever decision the alliance makes.

“Al-Sistani assured that whoever the alliance will choose, he will agree on him,” al-Moussawi said.

Although Chalabi and his supporters claim he had the support needed for the nomination, the vote between the two 58-year-old men was anything but a sure thing.

Fractured alliance
The Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the main group making up the alliance, had tried to persuade Chalabi to quit the race, some of its senior officials said.

“We had hoped that we would agree on one person without the secret ballot, because we fear that such a vote will cause divisions inside the alliance,” said Jawad Mohammed Taqi, a senior member of the group, known as SCIRI.

He added that “Chalabi seems very confident and he believes that when we hold a secret ballot he will get the majority. I believe this is an exaggeration.”

Whoever wins the ballot, he will face interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, 59, whose party came in third after a Kurdish coalition and received 40 seats.

“My list nominated me for the prime ministership,” Allawi, a secular Shiite, said Monday.

Al-Jaafari, the president of the Islamic Dawa Party, is also Western-oriented but is considered by many to be a cleric in a business suit.

Chalabi is a former exile leader who heavily promoted the idea that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction but later fell out with some key members of the Bush administration over allegations that he passed secrets to Iran.

Chalabi vows to purge Baathists
Chalabi’s candidacy could create problems for the alliance because of his vow to rid the government and administration of former members of Saddam’s Baath party. Most Baathists are Sunni Arabs, who largely stayed away from the polls either as a boycott or out of fears of being attacked by militants.

Shiite politicians such as al-Jaafari have been quick to reassure Sunnis, who make up about 20 percent of the population but were favored under Saddam, that they will have a role in forming a government and drafting the country’s first democratic constitution.

“Our Sunni brothers should be able to take part in the political process. We always assure that Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds will all be treated as Iraqi nationals first and foremost, and then we will respect their ethnic or religious identity,” al-Jaafari said after meeting with Allawi. “We stressed the need (for) our Sunni brothers to participate not only in parliament but also in the system.”

Allawi urges unity, reconciliation
Allawi told The Associated Press last week that the alliance must change its platform of purging former Baathists from government positions if it wants national unity and an end to the insurgency’s deadly campaign to destabilize the country with bombs, shooting attacks and kidnappings of Iraqis and foreigners.

A two-thirds majority — 182 seats — is needed to confirm the next president, two vice presidents, the prime minister and his Cabinet. The presidential posts are largely ceremonial and the true power lies with the prime minister.

Alliance representatives had gathered Monday to decide which two candidates would face a secret ballot among its 140 members elected to the assembly Jan. 30. The main contenders and power-brokers later had dinner in a heavily fortified building that serves as the headquarters for SCIRI leader Abdel-Aziz al-Hakim.

According to insiders, mostly in the Chalabi camp, he has the support of about 80 members — a group said to represent independents, Kurds, women and those close to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.