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New Iraqi President Upbeat

Asked where he lives, Iraq's new president-of-the-moment has a simple answer: "London."

Ibrahim al-Jaafari (search), a shy general practitioner with a trimmed gray beard and a striped blue suit, hasn't lived in Iraq since 1980, when Saddam Hussein's repression of his Shiite Muslim al-Dawa Party (search) forced him to flee — to Iran, Syria and Britain.

He still hasn't settled in. His wife and five children remain in London. He is staying at a friend's house. And he seems a bit out of place in his office in the manicured resthouse of Saddam's son-in-law, quickly transformed by the Americans from a looted shell into a government headquarters.

But in an interview with The Associated Press, al-Jaafari seemed upbeat about the Iraq Governing Council's task of cobbling together a government in a nation ravaged by dictatorship and war and occupied by the U.S. military.

"I don't fear the responsibility. I don't feel depressed or hopeless," he said. "But of course I know the path is difficult."

Then again, as presidencies go, al-Jaafari's is a humble one.

Iraq's American occupiers have veto power over anything he does. The U.S.-appointed Governing Council he heads isn't recognized by a single foreign government. And when August ends, so does al-Jaafari's term, which will rotate among nine council members through April.

In fact, al-Jaafari is Iraq's first president since Saddam for a very simple reason: Of the nine leaders in the rotating presidency, his name comes first in the Arabic alphabet.

On the streets, al-Jaafari's appointment hasn't caused much of a stir. In an entirely unscientific survey of 10 Baghdadis asked Sunday to name their president, only one came up with al-Jaafari's name.

Most people said they didn't have a president or they didn't know who he was. One named L. Paul Bremer (search), the American administrator of Iraq. One named President Bush.

Many Iraqis don't trust al-Jaafari and other former exiles on the council, saying they spent so long abroad that they have lost their connection with Iraqis who suffered under Saddam.

"I don't know anything about his background, but he came in on the American tanks," said driver Wa'ed Hussein, 51. Of the council members, he said: "They're supposed to represent the Iraqi people, but they have no roots."

Al-Jaafari insists Iraqis support him.

"I have no statistics, but people love me. They see that I am not very happy about being president, because I love to live a normal life," he said in an interview this weekend in the council's new offices.

The offices, one of the few places in Iraq where men wear suit jackets, boast manicured lawns and marble floors. The luxurious building once was a resthouse for Lt. Gen. Hussein Kamel, a cousin and son-in-law of Saddam who defected to Jordan, then was lured back to Iraq and killed in 1996.

It was heavily looted after the Americans entered Baghdad, and has been restored by coalition political consultants. Brand-new computers sit on brand-new desks amid freshly painted rooms and newly installed air conditioners.

American armored vehicles guard the compound, and visitors are shuttled to the offices in a military zone aboard a Toyota Landcruiser with 3,537 miles on the odometer, its seats still wrapped in factory plastic.

Inside, workers — Iraqi bureaucrats and American "facilities consultants" — chat away on cell phones, which are still illegal for the Iraqi public.

Al-Jaafari's cell phone, like those of U.S. administrators and military officers, can be reached only by dialing the United States. It has a 914 area code — Westchester County, an area of wealthy New York suburbs where Bill and Hillary Clinton have a house.

Al-Jaafari said he has a good relationship with the Americans. Bremer has been to his house for lunch. Al-Jaafari said the American promised not to use his veto power unless there is a "crisis situation."

"There is a development in his understanding of Iraq," al-Jaafari said of Bremer. "I think he wants success for the Governing Council."

But the Iraqi president made clear the Americans are expected to leave soon — "in one year, more or less."

"The Americans fulfilled their promise to topple Saddam Hussein," he said. "They also have to fulfill their promise to leave."

Al-Jaafari's relationship with the Americans goes only so far. He boycotted a U.S.-organized meeting of Iraqi politicians near the biblical city of Ur in April, saying at the time: "We have our reservations against attending a meeting called for by a military side."

And he turned down the Americans' offer of protection when he joined the Governing Council, saying: "It wouldn't be good for my reputation." He uses his own Iraqi bodyguards.

The council, appointed July 13, recently began to meet daily instead of three times a week. After a slow start marked by lack of agreement on the council — the reason there is a rotating presidency instead of a single leader — he said council members are now tackling the nuts and bolts of governance.

In recent days they have been discussing how to set up a body to draft a new constitution and going through lists of candidates for a new Cabinet.

Al-Jaafari said he envisioned a government that blends elements of Islamic political traditions and Western-style democracy. When that comes into place, al-Jaafari insists, he too will end his political career.

"I used to serve sick people, but when I discovered my country was sick I came to politics," he said. "I hope to see my country treated, so I can return to a hospital and put my stethoscope back on."