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February 12, 2006

Backed by Radical Cleric, Iraqi Prime Minister Retains Post


BAGHDAD, Iraq, Feb. 12 Shiite lawmakers decided by a one-vote margin today to retain Ibrahim al-Jaafari as prime minister in Iraq's next government, after a bitter internal struggle that exposed the growing power of anti-American fundamentalists within the new Iraqi parliament.

As the largest single bloc within the new 275-member parliament, the Shiites have the right to choose a prime minister under Iraq's constitution and will now begin negotiating in earnest with the leaders of other political groups to fill out Iraq's first full-term, four-year government.

Mr. Jaafari, a moderate Islamist, has been widely criticized as a weak leader over the past year and was considered a long shot to continue in his post. But he defeated his main rival 64 to 63 in a secret ballot this morning after gaining support from followers of Moktada al-Sadr, the renegade Shiite cleric who is outspoken in his hostility to the United States.

Mr. Sadr's followers now control the largest bloc of seats 32 out of 130 within the Shiite alliance. They decided to vote for Mr. Jaafari after he promised to help implement their political program, said Bahaa al-Aaraji, a sitting member of parliament and a spokesman for the Sadr movement.

Mr. Aaraji would not say exactly what the prime minister had agreed to. Mr. Jaafari may also have benefited from Mr. Sadr's longstanding grudge against the religious Shiite party to which Mr. Jaafari's main rival belongs.

But Mr. Jaafari's surprise victory illustrated the growing political power of Mr. Sadr, who led two bloody uprisings against the American occupation and the interim Iraqi government in 2004 and has made clear that he favors a prompt American withdrawal from Iraq. In recent visits to Iran and Syria, Mr. Sadr has expressed solidarity with the leaders of those countries and angry opposition to American policy toward them. Mr. Sadr also commands the Mahdi Army, a broad-based militia that has been largely quiet since 2004, but it is still armed and is said to be behind some recent deadly attacks on British troops in Basra.

Until the weekend, Shiite leaders had said they expected the prime minister's job to go to Adel Abdul Mahdi, an economist and member of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, or Sciri. Mr. Mahdi has a reputation for decisiveness and consensus-building, and is more popular with Kurdish and Sunni Arab leaders than Mr. Jaafari. But Mr. Jaafari refused to withdraw, and after efforts to achieve consensus broke down in rancor, the alliance's leaders agreed to decide the issue with a vote.

Afterward, Shiite leaders made a show of unity at a news conference, with Mr. Mahdi congratulating and praising his rival at a podium surrounded by banners bearing Shiite religious slogans. "It's not important who won; the important thing is that the United Iraqi Alliance stays unified," Mr. Jaafari said.

A number of Iraqi leaders outside the Shiite alliance expressed surprise and concern about the selection of Mr. Jaafari and the apparent influence exercised by Mr. Sadr's followers.

"I was surprised and rather disappointed," said Adnan Pachachi, a former foreign minister and member of the secular alliance led by the former interim prime minister, Ayad Allawi, which has 25 seats in the parliament. "If he follows what the Sadrists want, we will not be able to have a government of national unity."

Mr. Jaafari's government has been especially unpopular with Sunni Arabs, who have accused the Interior Ministry of backing death squads that have rounded up and murdered hundreds of Sunnis in Baghdad and elsewhere in recent months. Many Sunnis have also accused Shiite militias, including Mr. Sadr's Mahdi Army, of playing roles in the killings.

"Jaafari failed to provide security and protect Iraqis," said Mahmoud al-Mashadani, a Sunni Arab and leading member of the Iraqi Accordance Front, which has the third-largest bloc in the new parliament, with 44 seats. "Their business is not our business. But I expect trouble."

Talks on forming a cabinet are still in the earliest stages, and the new parliament has yet to meet. But signs of tension were already apparent on Sunday, as Iraq's Kurdish president, Jalal Talabani, who has often sparred with Mr. Jaafari, angrily criticized Shiite leaders for trying to exclude Mr. Allawi's group, the Iraqi National List, from the new government.

"We will never accept under any circumstances allowing the Iraqi National list to be excluded from the next government," Mr. Talabani said, speaking at a news conference alongside Zalmay Khalilzad, the American ambassador to Iraq. "Those who reject the Iraqi National list should understand that they are rejecting the Kurdish alliance as well, I say it loud and clear."

Some Shiite leaders had said last month that they intended to form a three-part government with the main Kurdish and Sunni Arab groups, relegating Mr. Allawi's secularists and some smaller parties to the opposition. (Under the Iraqi constitution, any group that controls two-thirds of the seats in Parliament can form a government.) But the mostly secular Kurds, who have the second-largest bloc with 53 seats, appear to be vetoing that option.

Sunni Arab leaders also insist on a broader coalition. In the past week the Iraqi Accordance front announced that it was teaming up with Mr. Allawi's group and a smaller Sunni Arab party to form a single negotiating bloc, the Joint Council for Patriotic Work, with 80 seats.

The task of accommodating all these groups within a single government will now fall in large measure to Mr. Jaafari. A white-haired physician with a quiet, apologetic manner, Mr. Jaafari, 59, fled Iraq in 1980 and spent years living in Iran, where he established close ties with Iranian leaders, like many other members of his Dawa Party.

Since Mr. Jaafari became prime minister last year, suicide bombings and assassinations have surged and oil production and exports have plummeted. Some Iraqi leaders, including fellow Shiites, have said he was not decisive enough for the job. Others said he allowed Shiite militias to infiltrate Iraq's police and military, leading to a rash of sectarian killings in Sunni neighborhoods that have harmed efforts to draw Iraq's Sunni insurgents into the political process.

The expanded power of Mr. Sadr could further complicate the process. Last fall, in an effort to keep Mr. Sadr from forming his own party, leaders of the United Iraqi Alliance offered his followers 30 seats the same number as Sciri, the largest Shiite party. A small Sadrist party also won two seats in the December election, and in recent days they have joined the alliance, making Mr. Sadr's faction the largest.

It is unclear how much control Mr. Sadr exercises over his followers in parliament. Over the past year he has often suggested that he is a clerical figure above the fray of politics. He has been similarly vague about his ties to the Mahdi Army, which unofficially polices parts of Baghdad but is regularly accused of carrying out sectarian assassinations and bombings.

Nassir Saadi, one of Mr. Sadr's followers in the new parliament, said today that he and other members of the group would be free to vote according to their consciences. But he said all of the members met regularly with a three-man committee that is in constant touch with Mr. Sadr. Mr. Aaraji said he expected the Sadr bloc to be given control of four or five ministries when a government is formed.

On some issues, Mr. Sadr's views are at odds with those of fellow Shiites, and could provide a bridge to other elements within the parliament. Most Shiite representatives, for example, favor the creation of semi-autonomous regions within Iraq, a proposal that has caused tremendous anger among Sunni Arab leaders. Mr. Sadr has said it would be premature to create such regions now. His strong opposition to the American presence is also echoed by many Sunni figures.

Mr. Jaafari's election came as insurgent violence left at least a dozen people dead across Iraq today. In southern Baghdad, a suicide bomber wearing an explosive belt blew himself up near a mosque, killing three police commandos and a woman and wounding four people, Interior Ministry officials said. Gunmen opened fire on a truck near a food market in the Shiite Shola district, killing two people inside, the officials said.

Elsewhere in the city, a roadside bomb exploded near a passing Iraqi police convoy, killing an adult civilian and a child and injuring three others. At least three other bombs exploded in other areas of Baghdad, including two near a downtown bakery that injured a dozen people.

Interior Ministry officials said two unidentified bodies blindfolded and handcuffed were found western Baghdad with bullets in their heads, the latest of a long series of grisly finds in the capital.

North of Baghdad in Diyala Province, gunmen assassinated Karim Salman, a school official, near a bus station in a rural area, police officials said.

In the northern oil city of Kirkuk, gunmen assassinated Khalid Abdul Hussein Muhammad, a doctor at Haweeja General Hospital, police officials said. Dr. Muhammad's brother, Majid Hussein Muhammad, said he had refused to treat insurgents who were injured in confrontations with American forces.

Abdul Razaq al-Saiedi and Khalid al-Ansary contributed reporting for this article.