BAGHDAD, Iraq – Ibrahim al-Jaafari (search), the head of a religious party who fought Saddam Hussein (search) and took refuge in Iran for a decade, was chosen Tuesday as the dominant Shiite ticket's candidate for prime minister — making him the overwhelming favorite for the post.
Al-Jaafari's selection came after former Washington ally Ahmad Chalabi (search) dropped out of the race following three days of round-the-clock bargaining. Al-Jaafari has been seen as having close ties to Iran's ruling clergy, though he denies any links to a government that President Bush has said is part of an "axis of evil."
But al-Jaafari must now build a ruling coalition and win agreement from the Kurds and others on candidates for Cabinet posts and the largely ceremonial presidency before seeking the support of a majority of the National Assembly elected Jan. 30.
It may not be easy for the 58-year-old physician from the Shiite holy city of Karbala. He'll have to meet conflicting demands from Kurds, Sunni Arabs and even Islamic hard-liners within his United Iraqi Alliance, which won about 51 percent of the seats in the assembly. A two-thirds majority is required for approval of the presidency — the first step in the process for the top positions.
"The Kurds will not ally with any nominee for the prime ministerial post unless he meets their demands," Noshirwan Mustafa, a top Kurdish leader, told The Associated Press.
Iraq's secular Kurds and many Sunnis worry that al-Jaafari will try to impose his Dawa Party's brand of conservative Islam on the country, particularly because the assembly will be charged with writing a new constitution.
Al-Jaafari told the AP last week that Islam should be the official religion of Iraq "and one of the main sources for legislation, along with other sources that do not harm Muslim sensibilities."
He skirted his party's official position, which explicitly urges for the "Islamization" of Iraqi society and the state, including the implementation of Shariah, or Islamic law.
"Theory is different from practice," al-Jaafari said.
Adnan Pachachi, a secular Sunni who fared badly in the elections, said he thinks al-Jaafari will appeal to all sides. "I don't find him an extremist at all, rather a moderate man who is trying to reach out and communicate with all people of different affiliations," Pachachi said.
The leader of a Sunni group that boycotted the elections said he didn't mind an Islamic government so long as it doesn't discriminate against Sunnis.
"We, as an Islamic party, we are not afraid of an Islamic government, but we are worried about a sectarian government," said Mohsen Abdel of the Iraqi Islamic Party.
There are other obstacles, and it was unclear how long it might take to select a Cabinet.
Ayad Allawi, the secular Shiite interim prime minister whose party received 14 percent of the votes on Jan. 30, could be tapped for a Cabinet post but has his own demands for cooperation.
Allawi has staunchly opposed the effort to rid the government and administration of former members of Saddam's Baath party.
"If they met our demands, then we don't care about what ministerial post we get. Even if we were offered a post, we won't accept it unless the demands are met," said Emad Shabeb, a senior member of Allawi's party.
The Shiites have said they also intend to bring Sunni Arab leaders into the administration to help smooth relations with the Sunni minority, alienated after the fall of Saddam. Some Sunnis are active in the Iraqi insurgency.
Chalabi could also prove a headache. His surprisingly strong showing within the alliance has restored him to Iraq's political elite after he fell from grace following accusations from Washington that he supplied Iran with classified information.
Wanted in Jordan for bank fraud, Chalabi was said to be angling for the post of deputy prime minister in charge of finance and security.
"Tomorrow morning we will start a move in other directions, to choose the Cabinet after we reached a conclusion internally about the three presidency posts," alliance spokesman Humam Hamoudi said. "As for the ministries, we are still talking and we have time."
According to the interim constitution adopted last year under the U.S. occupation, the 275-member National Assembly must elect a president and two vice presidents by a two-thirds majority, or 182 seats. The three must then unanimously choose a prime minister subject to assembly approval.
There is no timetable for the assembly to convene, and al-Jaafari and his alliance must agree with other elected parties on who will fill the three posts and the Cabinet. Even then, the prime minister has a month to name his Cabinet before the assembly vote.
Kurdish parties, who received 26 percent of the vote, or 75 seats, have said they want Jalal Talabani, a secular Sunni Kurd and leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, to be Iraq's next president.
"We respect the choice of the alliance for al-Jaafari, but we will not give a premature opinion about that choice unless we negotiate with him on our demands," said Mustafa, the No. 2 man in the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan.
He said demands include a new constitution that will legalize Kurdish self-rule in the north. Kurds, which make up about 15 percent of the population, also want an end to what they call "Arabization" of Kirkuk and other northern regions where Saddam settled Iraqi Arabs in a bid to secure control of the oil fields.
The Shiite alliance has not taken a firm stand on the demands, especially with regard to Kirkuk.
Interim Finance Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi, a member of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq — a party in the Shiite alliance — said a delegation would be sent north to discuss the Kurds' terms.
"We have negotiations with the brotherly Kurds and Turkomen, as we said before there will be a delegation from the alliance to negotiate ... to reach solutions that preserve the rights of the Iraqi people and its unity," he said.
Al-Jaafari is a top leader in the Islamic Dawa Party, one of the main Shiite parties in the clergy-backed alliance. He fled Iraq in 1980 during a crackdown by Saddam's forces against a bloody Dawa Party uprising that began in the late 1970s and was crushed in 1982. The group said it lost 77,000 members in wars against Saddam.
From Iran, where he remained until 1990, al-Jaafari is believed to have orchestrated a series of cross-border attacks against Iraqi forces while studying Shiite theology in the holy city of Qom.
He was seen as the leader of a pro-Tehran faction of Dawa with close ties to Iran's clerical government, though he denies any such links.
"This is just a widespread, mistaken belief," al-Jaafari told AP.