Thu, Feb 17, 2005 - Page 7 News List

Shy doctor could be Iraq's next leader


The shy family doctor who emerged on Tuesday as the most likely candidate to become Iraq's first democratically-elected prime minister says he would make ending the nation's rampant violence his top priority and US troops would remain as long as they were needed to achieve that goal.

In an exclusive Associated Press interview, the moderate Shiite politician, who fled a brutal crackdown by Saddam Hussein in 1980, talked about drafting a constitution that will draw not only on Islam for inspiration.

"Islam should be the official religion of the country, and one of the main sources for legislation, along with other sources that do not harm Muslim sensibilities," he said.

Al-Jaafari, who lived in London and is the leader of the Dawa Party, emerged as the top contender for the prime minister's job on Tuesday after his main rival, Adel Abdul Mahdi, dropped out. Ahmad Chalabi, a former Pentagon favorite, was still in the running, but was considered by many to be a long shot.

In Sunday's results, the United Iraqi Alliance scooped 48 percent of the vote for the National Assembly, the Kurdish alliance took 26 percent and Allawi, a secular Shiite, won only 14 percent. That could make the Kurds the king makers in the new Iraq.

The provisional results have yet to be certified by the election commission pending challenges. Once the results are certified, the present government must set a timetable for installing the new government, a process that could take weeks.

Al-Jaafari, 58, acknowledged that recent deals reached between Iraq's religious parties pointed toward his victory.

"I hear from here and there, but I can't tell to what extent it is a consensus," he said, wearing a blue suit and a neatly trimmed gray beard.

Al-Jaafari said that if he is confirmed as prime minister, he would first try to stymie the violence that has crippled the nation's recovery from decades of war and hardship.

"The security situation is at the top, as it is a pressing element," al-Jaafari said. He also said he would not push for the US and its allies to withdraw their troops from Iraq any time soon.

"Blood is being spilled and the land is under attack," he said. "How about if we decided to get these troops out of Iraq?" he said, suggesting that the situation would be much worse than it is now.

But al-Jaafar has kept some distance from the US occupation.

He boycotted a US-organized meeting of Iraqi politicians near the biblical city of Ur in April 2003. While he served on the Governing Council appointed by the US government shortly after the invasion, he turned down the Americans' offer of protection. But he did serve on the council and became vice president of the interim government that replaced it.

Speaking from his home in the US guarded Green Zone in central Baghdad, he said he shares the Kurdish and Shiite desire for federalism in Iraq.

"I am looking for a constitution that would be a clear mirror of the composition of the Iraq people," he said. It should be "based on respecting all Iraqi beliefs and freedoms."

But he was clear that he opposed any attempts to break Iraq apart, following a non-binding referendum in the Kurdistan region promoting independence.

"Federalism doesn't mean separation from the nation state," he said.

Even though he leads the Dawa Party, which is part of the clergy-endorsed United Iraqi Alliance, his views contrasted with the official platform on the party's Web site.

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