February 12, 2006

Iraqi Politicians Still Deadlocked on Premier


BAGHDAD, Iraq, Feb. 11 Shiite political leaders failed to agree Saturday on their nominee to be Iraq's new prime minister, saying they would take a vote on Sunday if efforts to pick a candidate by consensus had not succeeded by then.

The Shiite United Iraqi Alliance, which won the largest bloc of seats in the December elections, had expected to formally nominate Adel Abdul Mahdi on Saturday, spokesmen said. Mr. Mahdi, a moderate Islamist and vice president who belongs to the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the alliance's largest faction, is well liked by many Sunni Arab and Kurdish leaders, who will take part in a national unity government.

But Ibrahim al-Jaafari, Iraq's current prime minister and the other leading candidate for the post, has refused to withdraw his name from contention, and he still commands wide support in the Shiite ranks.

"All of us want to pick a new prime minister by consensus," said Sami al-Askari, an independent Shiite member of the alliance. "But it seems none of the candidates are willing to withdraw."

The Shiite leaders will meet Sunday in one more effort to pick a premier by consensus, and if that fails, as is now expected, they will conduct a secret ballot, the results of which will be final, Mr. Askari said. The largest bloc in Parliament has the constitutional right to pick a prime minister, who will lead the country's first full-term government.

Mr. Jaafari has been widely criticized in and out of the Shiite alliance during the past year, and he had been expected to step down. But he still has the support of his own Dawa Party, and of the followers of the Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr, a larger group that has 30 of the alliance's 128 seats. The Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, known as Sciri, also has 30 seats, and it has supported Mr. Mahdi, as does the smaller Fadhila Party. The nonaffiliated, or independent bloc, is split between the candidates.

Under the Iraqi Constitution, the new Parliament must meet within two weeks to select a speaker. That meeting will set off other deadlines, and if all goes according to plan, the government will be complete by mid-April. But previous governments have not met their deadlines, and the negotiations could be more difficult now that Parliament includes a broader range of groups with widely differing views on crucial questions like federalism and the role of religion in the state.

The political talks came as violence continued across Iraq. North of Baghdad in Samarra, a mortar shell landed in a residential area, killing two civilians and wounding three. In the western city of Falluja, gunmen killed a police officer on his way to work in the Jumhuriya district, not far from where the leader of the Falluja City Council was killed on Thursday, the police said.

In the southern city of Basra, gunmen shot dead Capt. Makram al-Abbasi, an Iraqi Army spokesman, army officials said. The gunmen drove a Toyota sedan that is familiar from other assassinations carried out by militias in Basra, and was accompanied by a police car, said an Iraqi Army official who spoke on condition of anonymity, for fear of reprisals. Shiite militias have infiltrated Basra's police and government, and assassinations have become common.

In Baghdad, the authorities blocked off a large downtown area for a planned demonstration against the Danish cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad, the latest of many similar protests in Iraq and elsewhere. But only about 250 protesters showed up, mostly members of Mr. Jaafari's Dawa Party carrying posters of Shiite ayatollahs, and the rally was peaceful.

Abdul Razzaq al-Saiedi and Mona Mahmoud contributed reporting from Baghdad for this article.