Tue, Mar 01, 2005 - Page 9 News List

The man who would be prime minister

Ibrahim al-Jaafari has tough times ahead -- a country to unite, insurgents to quell, an economy to fix. It's a far cry from his previous job as a family doctor in north London

By Rory Carroll  /  THE GUARDIAN , BAGHDAD

ILLUSTRATION: YU SHA

US helicopters drone overhead as guards open the gates to the compound. They grip Kalashnikovs while a colleague uses a mirror to check the underside of the car for bombs. Credentials are scrutinized once, twice, three times. At an inner gate a sentry does a serious frisk, not the usual pat-and-go. Mobile phones are handed over. "And your watches." They, too, disappear into a drawer.

Two Americans with crew cuts and flak jackets with grenades, flares and ammunition clips are the escorts through the mansion's grounds. There is a moat with brown water, apparently bereft of life, until a fish leaps out and plops back in.

Of his many Baghdad palaces this was said to be one of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein's favorites. Now it is occupied by the man poised to replace him as ruler of Iraq. Ibrahim al-Jaafari is a very different man from the deposed dictator but he shares an occupational hazard: lots of people want to kill him.

To those who knew him as a mild-mannered family doctor in Wembley, north London, the transformation must be astounding. He is the epitome of a family doctor. A neatly trimmed beard, a bowl of sweets for visitors, chit-chat about the weather, reminiscence about a trip to Dublin, the voice so soft you sometimes have to lean forward to catch the words.

Last week the main Shiite alliance which won last month's election chose Jaafari to be its candidate as the next prime minister of Iraq, making his elevation a virtual certainty. It will sandwich him between the aspirations of a divided people, and the competing interests of the US, Iran, Israel and insurgents, to name but some of those jostling for influence.

Everyone is asking the same questions. Will he cosy up to Tehran and push for an Islamist constitution which erodes women's rights? Will he alienate Arab Sunnis by a sweeping purge of Baathist loyalists? Will he ask the US-led occupation force to leave sooner rather than later? Will he be up to the job? Will he survive the insurgents' bombs and bullets?

Perched on a sofa in his office, Jaafari looks his 58 years. A high, bald dome, silver hair combed neatly over the ears, he is impeccable in a blue suit and red tie. His English is good but not perfect, so much of the interview, conducted two weeks ago before his nomination was confirmed, is in Arabic.

Some worry he is too self-effacing and shy for the job but Jaafari plays up the mild persona, perhaps in deliberate contrast to Saddam's megalomania.

"I did not expect to be in this position but I will respond if I am called to serve my country. I believe the government is there to serve," he said.

He smiles, acknowledging the coyness of a politician on the verge of high office.

Just down the street from his office is the victory arch, crossed swords celebrating Iraq's supposed victory over Iran held by hands modelled on Saddam's. It is difficult to imagine the small, neat hands folded in Jaafari's lap ever being cast into monumental bombast but statues of him could conceivably fill some of Saddam's vacated plinths.

Shiites, some 60 percent of the population, were oppressed by successive rulers but that ended in the Jan. 30 election when the Shiite bloc, the United Iraqi Alliance, won 140 of 275 national assembly seats. It has the tacit backing of Iraq's most revered cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, and should have little trouble installing its candidate as prime minister, a more powerful post than the largely ceremonial presidency.

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