"That's a question best put to the Iraqis. It's their government. They'll decide who they want to head it. It's somebody who, under the terms of the [Iraqi] Constitution, needs to have the support of two-thirds of the [National] Assembly. So they've got to find somebody -- around which they can unite," U.S. State Department spokesman Adam Ereli told reporters in Washington when asked who now is the most likely candidate to put together Iraq's new cabinet.
Ereli's comments may have sought to soften mounting impressions over the past days that Washington wants current Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Ja'fari to abandon the task of forming a government in favor of someone else.
Al-Ja'fari has been under fire from both Kurdish and Sunni Arab parties for weeks and, more recently, from some parties in his own dominant Shi'ite coalition, the United Iraqi Alliance.
Last week, senior Shi'ite politicians said U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad had told them U.S. President George W. Bush did not support the retention of al-Ja'fari.
Al-Ja'fari's critics say he demonstrated poor leadership of Iraq's outgoing transitional administration. They also say he has achieved no progress toward forming a new government since being nominated by the dominant Shi'ite alliance to do so.
"We do not have any objection at the person of al-Ja'fari. Good and warm relations bind us to him, and he is a dear friend to us. But the period during which he led the cabinet was not successful," a member of the Sunni Arab-led Iraqi Accordance Front, Khalaf al-Ulayyan, told RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq in an April 2 interview.
"The period was not distinguished in anything but a quantity of bloodshed and a number of problematic acts that almost led the country to a gorge," he said. "Nevertheless, God Supreme and Almighty showed mercy upon us and we have crossed the period. So I do not think he is the man who deserves the leadership for the coming period."
But al-Ja'fari has refused to step aside, creating a political crisis that, unless resolved, could delay forming the government for weeks or months more.
The surprise fly-in by the top U.S. and British diplomats emphasized the significance both Washington and London give to breaking the deadlock in Baghdad before the crisis worsens.
"It is time to agree on those positions [in the next Iraqi government] because the Iraqi people are rightly demanding that they have a government after they braved the threats of terrorists to go to the polls and vote," U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told reporters in Baghdad on April 3.
Her British counterpart, Jack Straw, said that not only do Iraqis have a right to see progress in Baghdad, so do London and Washington. He said the next prime minister must be someone who is both effective in forming a government and someone the Western powers can work with.
"The Americans have lost over 2,000 people [in Iraq], we've [Britain] lost over 100. There are 140,000 overseas troops here helping to keep the peace in Iraq and billions of United States dollars, hundreds of millions of British pound sterling have come into this country," Straw said. "We do have, I think, a right to say that we've got to be able to deal with Mr. A, or Mr. B, or Mr. C [as Iraq's new prime minister]; we can't deal with Mr. Nobody."
Washington and London, which invaded Iraq three years ago to topple Saddam Hussein, have reasons of their own to be impatient with al-Ja'fari. He has championed Islamic values at the expense of secular ones and one of his closest supporters is now radical Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who has led two open rebellions against the U.S.-led occupation.
Lack Of Alternatives
But if al-Ja'fari is under fire, finding a replacement for him is not easy.
One possibility is current Vice President Adil Abd al-Mahdi, who lost the United Iraqi Alliance's nomination to form the next government by one vote to al-Ja'fari on February 12.
Al-Mahdi could be attractive to Washington and London because he is Western-educated and a proponent of free-market economics. That could temper his Islamist ideals and the long years of exile that he and many other Shi'ite political leaders spent in Iran during the Hussein era.
But it remains unclear whether al-Mahdi would, in fact, be any more Western-leaning than al-Ja'fari, who was initially viewed by many as a relative moderate due to his own training as a doctor.
Other names sometimes mentioned as potential compromise figures are Husayn al-Shahristani, a former nuclear physicist, and Ali Allawi, who is the current finance minister.
The only certainty is that the compromise figure will have to come from within the Shi'ite alliance. The alliance has shown has no intention of giving up its right to form the next government as the leading vote-getter in the December 15 elections.
The urgency of forming a national-unity government in Iraq was underlined once again by violence on April 3. Just hours after Rice and Straw departed, a car bomb exploded near a Shi'ite mosque in Baghdad, killing at least 10 people and wounding 30 others.
Sectarian violence has been on the rise since the bombing of a Shi'ite shrine in Samarra last month.
Deputies Speak Out Against Al-Ja'fari Bid
LOOKING FOR A NEW FACE: Two Iraqi parliament deputies on April 2 told RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq (RFI) that they do not support the nomination of Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Ja'fari to retain his post. Disagreement over the nomination, among other things, has prevented Iraq from forming a government in the wake of legislative elections in December 2005.
"Our Kurdish friends and our friends in the Iraqi Accordance Front have insisted in new messages they sent three days ago on a refusal to deal with the nominee of the United Iraqi Alliance [al-Ja'fari]," said QASIM DAWUD, a parliamentary deputy and a member of the independent bloc within the United Iraqi Alliance. "But I must clearly say that I represent a very broad stream within the alliance that supports a policy [of choosing a nominee other than al-Ja'fari]...." (more)