Prague, 23 February 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Ibrahim al-Ja’fari, the head of the Islamic Al-Da’wah Party, has been chosen as the candidate of the dominant United Iraqi Alliance for prime minister.
Al-Ja’fari, the leader of one of the two main Shi’ite Islamic parties, must now build a ruling coalition that meets the conflicting demands of the Kurds, Sunni Arabs, and even more conservative members within his United Iraqi Alliance.
Analysts say he is up to managing this task. Larbi Sadiki, a lecturer on Middle East politics at Exeter University in Britain says that al-Ja’fari -- though a leader of a religious party -- is the politician who can unite Iraq. “He is supposedly someone who can work within a coalition government," Sadiki said. "So, he's not really exclusionary in any way. He recognizes and it was made available publicly…that he would work with [interim Prime Minister Iyad] Allawi, he would work with [Iraqi National Congress leader Ahmad] Chalabi."
"He is really less ideological, more pragmatic than Shi’ite [leaders] are in Iran, definitely. He is really probably closer to the reformers in Iran than to the conservatives in that country."
Sadiki says al-Ja’fari is also eager to include Sunnis, who largely boycotted the elections, in the political process.
Al-Ja’fari said after his nomination that his policy would be inclusive because the Sunnis are "an integral portion of [all] Iraqis, and we will include them in discussions.” The statement reiterated what he said on February 9 regarding the importance of the Sunnis. "We believe that Sunni representation, the representation of our Sunni brethren in government, is a basic issue because they are a basic element in Iraqi society," al-Ja'fari said. "That is why they must have their rightful place in government as well."
In an interview with the Associated Press conducted before the election results were certified, al-Ja’fari said that Islam should be Iraq's official religion but said the country’s constitution -- which is to be written this year -- should "be based on respecting all Iraqi beliefs and freedoms."
Some are concerned that al-Ja’fari is the head of an Islamic Shi’ite party and is known to have good relations with the mainly Shi’ite Iranians. However, Sadiki says al-Ja’fari is not as conservative on political issues as the fundamentalist Shi’ites ruling Iran. "He is really less ideological, more pragmatic than Shi’ite [leaders] are in Iran, definitely," Sadiki said. "He is really probably closer to the reformers in Iran than to the conservatives in that country."
Sadiki also says that al-Ja’fari, a 58-year-old doctor, is much more popular in Iraq than Allawi. He is considered not to be corrupt and is known to have good relations with the Iraqi Shi’ite spiritual leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. "I don't think al-Ja’fari would be what he is today without the blessing of al-Sistani," Sadiki said. "Of course the jockeying for power has been completely political but I think al-Sistani's blessing is very, very important."
Forging a ruling coalition will put al-Ja’fari's qualities to a real test. Yahia Said, a researcher at the London School of Economics, says there are not a lot of coalition partners to choose from and that the Kurdish bloc of parties will be al-Ja’fari’s likely partners in government. "The majority can only be achieved with a coalition of the United Iraqi Alliance and the Kurdistan alliance," Said said. "So these two groups have to work together no matter what happens."
Kurdish demands may not be easy for al-Ja’fari and the United Iraqi Alliance to meet. The Kurdish Alliance, with 75 seats, wants a Kurdish president, a recognition of Kurdish rights in the ethnically divided city of Kirkuk, and the preservation of their autonomy in the north of the country.
The Iraqi List, which is led by Allawi and will have 40 seats in the National Assembly, is another possible coalition partner.