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Iraq Report: April 8, 2005

8 April 2005, Volume 8, Number 13

"RFE/RL Iraq Report" will next appear on 29 April. For continuing coverage, see RFE/RL's Iraq country page:
PRESIDENTIAL CHOICE IS LANDMARK FOR KURDS. The Iraqi National Assembly elected Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) head Jalal Talabani to be the country's new president on 6 April. Talabani's rise is a milestone in the history of Iraq's long oppressed Kurds. He is the first Kurd ever to fill the seat, and has worked hard to maintain Kurdish autonomy within a federal Iraq.

A Kurdish patriot, Talabani had a history of organization and -- at times -- confrontation to oppose the regime of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

But he has worked alongside fellow Kurd Mustafa Barzani to maintain autonomy within a postwar federal Iraq.

"It is a right of the Kurdish people to demand that the region of Kurdistan, as it is known in terms of geography and history, become the region over which the Kurdish people would exert their federal rule," Talabani told RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq (RFE) on 24 February. "We believe that these [currently] existing problems can also be solved by consensus and dialogue, in a brotherly political way. There is no problem in Iraq that would be unsolvable, in our opinion."

Talabani has played a crucial role in the postwar administration of Iraq, holding a seat on the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council and acting as rotating president on the council in November 2003.

A constant proponent of reconciliation between Iraq's divergent groups, Talabani told fellow parliamentarians at the National Assembly's first session on 16 March.

"A serious patriotic task stands before all of us: It is reestablishing the previous Iraqi national unity on the principles of free choice, consensus, and national reconciliation between Iraqis of good will who are against dictatorship and terror," Talabani said.

Talabani held no role in the interim Iraqi government, but remained a key politician. He headed the Kurdistan Coalition List's ballot for seats on the transitional National Assembly, with aspirations of being elected by the assembly as Iraq's transitional president.

For Talabani, the Iraqi presidential post represents the culmination of a political career that he launched even before he reached adulthood.

Talabani was born in 1933 in the Kurdish village of Kelkan. He joined the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) headed by Mustafa Barzani -- reportedly at the early age of 14 -- and was elected to the KDP's central committee in 1951, while earning a law degree from Baghdad University.

He later became a member of the KDP's politburo and was a key figure in the 1961 Kurdish revolt against the government of Abd al-Karim Qasim. He participated in the delegation that held talks with the government of President Abd al-Salam Arif's in 1963. Talabani left the KDP in 1966 and later founded the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan from Damascus in 1975.

The PUK and KDP had a contentious relationship, battling each other from 1978 until 1986. The PUK was also at odds with Saddam Hussein's government but eventually established a cease-fire with Hussein and entered into talks in 1983. Those talks broke down in 1985 and full-scale fighting resumed, with pro-Iraqi militiamen killing Talabani's brother and two nieces.

Iran facilitated a reconciliation between the PUK and KDP in 1986, with both groups receiving financial support from the Iranian regime.

In 1987, Talabani and Barzani, along with a number of smaller Kurdish groups, formed the Kurdistan Front. Kurds had effectively gained control over Iraqi Kurdistan, but that control was short-lived.

Saddam Hussein retaliated and, from March to September 1988, his army launched the infamous Anfal Campaign, killing, deporting, or gassing hundreds of thousands of Kurds. The PUK-controlled areas bore the brunt of the attacks, and Talabani sought refuge in Iran.

Following the 1991 Gulf War, Kurds launched an uprising against the Iraqi regime. In March, Hussein's troops invaded Kurdistan, driving Kurds north into the mountains. By April, coalition forces had established a safe-haven for the Kurds along the Iraqi border, while Talabani and Barzani entered into autonomy talks with Hussein's regime. The PUK and KDP continued to battle the regime throughout most of the year.

Talabani and Barzani joined the Iraqi opposition in 1992, and later that year the PUK and KDP agreed on the formation of a Kurdistan National Assembly. Elections were held, with the groups effectively splitting control of the parliament. Both the PUK and KDP retained their own peshmerga fighting forces and administration over their areas in eastern and western Kurdistan.

Civil war broke out between the two sides in 1994. By 1996, Barzani was receiving help from Baghdad in battling the PUK, prompting Talabani to brand Barzani a traitor for enlisting Hussein's help.

The Kurds eventually reached a peace agreement in 1998, and convened the first joint session of the Kurdish parliament in six years in October 2002.

Just weeks ahead of the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003, the PUK and KDP created a joint higher leadership under Talabani and Barzani's chairmanship.

Talabani has worked with Barzani to maintain Kurdish autonomy within a federal Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion of the country.

"We think that Kurds, Shi'a Arabs, and Sunni Arabs have to agree on the new structure of the new Iraq, on the writing of the constitution, on the distribution of the main posts," Talibani told RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq on 24 February. "Without this consensus, there could be no viable and stable Iraq and governments."

With his election to the post of president, Talabani has been offered a chance to further those goals -- and play a key role in Iraq's stabilization and reconstruction. (Kathleen Ridolfo)

RFI REPORTS ON JALAL TALABANI. RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq (RFI) reported on comments made by newly elected transitional President Jalal Talabani to reporters at the Baghdad Conference Palace following his election on 6 April.

Asked what it means to him to be president of Iraq, Talabani said: "It presents for me a national mandate from the Iraqis to carry out a national duty for a democratic, federal, independent, untied, and developed Iraq. And it's a big honor for the Arab and Kurdish liberal movements who struggled [against Saddam Hussein]."

Asked about the program to be carried out by the transitional government, he told reporters: "Tomorrow, the new government will be sworn in. After that, Mr. Ibrahim al-Ja'fari will be asked to form the government and he will try his utmost with the lists who won the election as well as other political figures from outside those lists to reach a suitable government that will be accepted by all."

Concerning Iraq's relations with its neighbors, al-Ja'fari said: "We will carry out dialogues and negotiations with neighboring states to stop supporting the criminal terrorist gangs that work under the name of resistance. Also, [we will ask them] not to interfere in Iraq's internal issues.

Talabani criticized terrorists for their so-called resistance saying: "There is no resistance. There are criminal gangs killing women and children, and there are other gangs belonging to Al-Qaeda and [Abu Mus'ab] al-Zarqawi. This is not a resistance. This word "resistance" distorts the real meaning of resistance. But the Iraqis who are bearing guns for a national motive to stand against the foreign forces [multinational forces] are our brothers and those people are the ones with whom we can negotiate and reach a solution.

That means there is a line between the terrorists and criminals who are in a relation with foreigners and between the Iraqis who think or thought that this military campaign is good for Iraq."

Asked about the Kurdish peshmerga forces, Talabani said: "The peshmerga forces struggled to liberate Iraq and to reach the day that we all could meet together in a democratic Baghdad. So, the peshmerga are the forces for the Iraqi people and the peshmerga liberated a part of Iraq and sheltered all the Iraqis who escaped from the dictatorial regime and this liberated part was a safe haven for all the Iraqi political groups."

Speaking about Arab Sunni participation in the transitional government, he said: "Yes, we have a program especially for the Arab Sunni brothers who should have their position in the government and all their rights. And even we the Kurds. But don't forget that we Kurds are also Sunni and we will defend our Arab Sunni brothers to have all their rights � completely. God willing, the Iraqis are one belt. The Kurds and Arabs are one belt. Long live Iraq. (Translation by Diar Bamrni/Kathleen Ridolfo/Nazim Yassin)

CHOICE OF IRAQI PARLIAMENT SPEAKER REVEALS SUNNI DISCORD. Sunnis successfully nominated fellow parliamentarian Hajim al-Hassani as speaker of the National Assembly on 3 April. The choice followed several days of internal friction and disagreements with the Shi'ite-led United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) over a Sunni candidate. Such friction suggests a growing fissure between mainstream Sunnis and the Muslim Scholars Association, a group that claims to represent some 3,000 mosques in Iraq.

Shi'ite leaders had supported the first Sunni nominee, interim President Ghazi Ajil al-Yawir. But al-Yawir declined to accept the nomination, which he considered a demotion from his current position. Al-Yawir's decision left the 17 Sunni parliamentarians scrambling to find a nominee that was acceptable not only to them, but also to the Shi'ite and Kurdish lists that together constitute a majority in the parliament. The events that followed demonstrate the diversity within the Sunni constituency, as their representatives struggled to find a compromise candidate who would represent both secular and Islamist Sunnis, as well as all of Iraq's citizenry.

After the Sunnis failed to nominate a new speaker at the 29 March session, Reconciliation and Liberation Bloc head Mish'an al-Juburi proclaimed himself the new Sunni nominee on 1 April. Veteran Sunni politician Adnan al-Pachachi confirmed the nomination, saying that Sunni leaders participating in the National Forces Front (also called the National Front and Dialogue Council), agreed on the al-Juburi nomination. The front reportedly represents Sunni religious, political, and tribal groups including the Iraqi Islamic Party, the Council of National Dialogue, the Ifta Council, and the Shura Council of Ahl al-Sunnah wa Al-Jama'ah, as well as Sufi and Salafist groups. "This front is considered the ultimate authority for approving or choosing the candidates who are reserved for the Sunni community," said Pachachi, according to a 2 April report by RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq (RFI). Some members of the Muslim Scholars Association also belong to the front, although the association does not officially participate in it.

Shi'ite leaders quickly made it known that they would not accept al-Juburi, a former Ba'athist and associate of Saddam Hussein's family, as speaker. They contended that the al-Juburi nomination did not represent all Sunni groups and therefore could not be considered. Thousands of Iraqis reportedly demonstrated in Tikrit on 2 April in favor of al-Juburi's nomination. But in an effort to pressure Sunnis to find another candidate, Shi'ite leaders fired back, threatening to nominate their own speaker. The Sunni party Constitutional Monarchy Movement also expressed dissatisfaction with the al-Juburi nomination, claiming instead to support United Iraqi Alliance candidate Fawwaz al-Jarba for the position.

Meanwhile, the Iraqi public expressed growing frustration over the delay. The frustration was brushed off however, by United Iraqi Alliance leader and prime ministerial candidate Ibrahim al-Ja'fari, who told on 3 April: "The reason it took time to reach this first stage is because there's a difference between dictatorship and democracy. Dictatorship takes a short time. Democracy takes a longer time, because people need to negotiate with each other to get the best results." Al-Juburi meanwhile, accused the United Iraqi Alliance of attempting to establish "hegemony" over the Sunni choice by driving a wedge between Sunni groups.

The United Iraqi Alliance's threat put Sunnis on the defensive but nonetheless produced the desired effect. Al-Hassani was nominated and elected speaker. United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) candidate Husayn al-Shahristani and Kurdistan Coalition candidate Arif Tayfur were elected deputy speakers.

Speaking to RFI on 3 April, al-Juburi said of his withdrawal: "I find it to be in the national interest that the political process is successful, [and] I believe that doctor Hajim [al-Hasani] is a convenient [candidate] too, and that he will fulfill the same role that I had expected myself to fulfill. He is a person able to represent the interests of the people who elected me and chose me for this post." Al-Juburi added that he did not want to give the impression of craving posts and titles, and consequently informed prime ministerial candidate al-Ja'fari, interim President al-Yawir, and acting assembly speaker Dari al-Fayyad of his decision.

Al-Juburi told Al-Jazeera in a 4 April interview that the United Iraqi Alliance offered to withdraw its candidate for the post in exchange for al-Juburi's withdrawal from the race. "Our position...has been that we objected to the UIA naming one of its members [a reference to the UIA's Sunni candidate, Fawwaz al-Jarba,] who won votes of the Shi'ite list and Shi'ite voters as a representative of the Sunni Arabs to assume one of the primary positions. We had what we wanted. Therefore, we made them withdraw this candidate." Al-Juburi said that he accepted al-Hassani as the speaker and conceded that his own nomination would not have been accepted. "I adopt anti-de-Ba'athification principles and I talk about liberation. I denounced terrorist operations, but I support the noble national resistance, which targets the Hummer, the occupation. I believe these principles are unacceptable to others."

The internal friction among the Sunni groups is best reflected in the growing realization by some Sunnis that they should distance themselves from the Muslim Scholars Association led by Harith al-Dari, which has served as the leading proponent of the "resistance." One example of the friction is the recent issuance of a fatwa, or religious edict, by 64 Sunni clerics calling on Iraqis to join the army and police to protect citizens' lives, property, and honor. The intention of the fatwa appears to be more of an attempt to temper the Shi'ite and Kurdish domination of the security services than an offer of Sunni reconciliation or a contribution to Iraq's democratic development. Hardly a full-fledged endorsement of the new government, the fatwa said in part, "The army and police are the safety valves [of Iraqi society] and they are the army of the entire nation and not militias of a special faction or party." Nevertheless, it sparked outrage among some members of the Muslim Scholars Association, which issued a statement denying its support of the edict.

Association members Harith al-Ubaydi and Ahmad Abd al-Ghafur al-Samarra'i (the imam who announced the fatwa) have reportedly left the association and joined the Iraqi Islamic Party. National Assembly Speaker Al-Hassani was a member of the party but withdrew his membership last year after party leader Muhsin Abd al-Hamid ordered all members to withdraw from the interim government. The party later expressed regret for following the association's lead and boycotting January's elections.

The association, meanwhile, has launched accusations against Sunni leaders Pachachi and Sharif Ali bin al-Husayn (Constitutional Monarchy Movement) and at Shi'ite leader Ahmad Chalabi, claiming all three men have attempted to ride the wave of resistance in order to achieve personal gains, "Al-Hayat" reported on 4 April. All three men claimed to have established contacts with members of the resistance interested in taking part in the government. Association member Khalid Fakhri al-Jumayli told the daily, "They want to deceive the resistance and are giving promises they cannot fulfill in an attempt to extinguish the political program of the resistance." He added that certain positions taken by the association have also "helped split the Arab Sunni's political ranks and weaken their representation in the parliamentary elections process."

Sunnis are pressing for a more equitable distribution of cabinet posts, a demand that might be resisted by Shi'ites and Kurds. "We will not accept only four ministries for the Sunni Arabs. We want as many ministerial portfolios as designated for the Kurds. This is how things were during the first and second governments," Pachachi told Al-Jazeera on 1 April.

Ali al-Rubay'i, spokesman for Ayatollah Muhammad Ishaq al-Fayyad, told that Shi'ite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani has advised the United Iraqi Alliance to give the Sunnis control over either the foreign or defense minister posts, with the other post going to the Kurds, the website reported on 3 April. The United Iraqi Alliance would retain control over the Interior Ministry and intelligence services -- posts that some Sunnis believe they have a right to administer. (Kathleen Ridolfo)

KIDNAPPING OF ROMANIAN JOURNALISTS APPEARS TO BE ELABORATE SCHEME. At first glance, the 28 March kidnapping of three Romanian journalists and their Iraqi-American translator in Iraq appeared to be one in a string of kidnappings targeting journalists. But as the circumstances of the abduction came to light, it became clear that there was nothing routine about the incident.

Rather, it appears to have been part of an elaborate scheme allegedly hatched by Syrian-Romanian businessman Omar Hayssam (aka Haytham al-Umar) and his Iraqi-American business partner Muhammad Munaf. Hayssam is currently being investigated on a number of charges related to his business dealings in Romania. He is reportedly one of the top 300 richest businessmen in that country.

It appears possible that the motive for the kidnapping is the enhancement of Hayssam's reputation with the government. Moreover, it could be an attempt to profit from the current security situation and the absence of a rule of law in Iraq. According to Reporters Without Borders, at least 17 journalists have been kidnapped in Iraq since the start of the war in March 2003, and more than 50 journalists have been killed.

But journalists are not the only target of kidnappings. Iraqi citizens -- and often women and children -- have been routinely kidnapped and held for ransom by criminal gangs across the country. Profit is the driver; the gangs operate with impunity because of the lack of security. Police and intelligence agencies are largely occupied by the insurgency, leaving families to negotiate on their own or through the help of tribal or clerical leaders. The perpetrators of these crimes are thought to come from the throngs of criminals released by former President Saddam Hussein under a general amnesty just months before the war (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 25 October 2002).

It remains unclear whether profit might have been a motivator in the kidnapping of the Romanian journalists. Businessman Hayssam had said he was prepared to pay the ransom in the bogus abduction. It is unknown whether the Romanian government was ever approached with a ransom demand.

The deteriorating situation has become so dangerous for journalists (and particularly foreign journalists) that many have spent recent months reporting on events in Iraq from their hotels or secure areas within the fortified Green Zone rather than providing on-the-ground coverage. Other journalists have re-embedded with multinational forces. Italian journalists left Iraq altogether in February at the behest of the Italian Embassy following the abduction of Giuliana Sgrena.

The kidnapped Romanian journalists were Prima television correspondent Marie Jeanne Ion and her cameraman Sorin Miscoci, along with Eduard Ovidiu Ohanesian of "Romanian Libera." Also "kidnapped" was Iraqi-American Muhammad Munaf, a Romania resident (and Hayssam's business partner), who helped facilitate the journalists' travel and interviews in Iraq. Romanian media reports indicated that Munaf also financed part of the trip.

Ion was able to call Romania during the abduction (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 March 2005), while Hayssam told reporters the same day that the kidnappers had called him on 29 March demanding the ransom. Hayssam immediately declared himself the intermediary in the case, and offered to pay the ransom.

Al-Jazeera television also broadcast a videotape of the journalists on 30 March. No demands were made in the videotaped message, and no group claimed responsibility for the kidnappings. The circumstances appeared similar to the abduction of French journalist Florence Aubenas and her translator Husayn Hanun al-Sa'di, who were abducted outside their hotel on 5 January in Baghdad. Her unidentified captors released a videotape of her pleading for help on 1 March (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 7 March 2005). After more than three months in captivity, no demands have been issued for her release.

But Romanian authorities may have been alerted to the scam based on remarks made by Hayssam in a videotaped statement saying that the abductors should negotiate with his father (unidentified) and his brother Samir. Munaf's brother Yusif, a Baghdad resident, was also named as a negotiator. "Don't make waves, call me immediately, tell me what you are doing," he said, in an apparent message to the kidnappers.

The Romanian government has been tight-lipped about the investigation and any evidence it has about Hayssam's involvement in the case, but prosecutors detained Hayssam on 5 April in connection with ongoing investigations that include accusations of money laundering, tax evasion, and the creation of an organized-crime group, Rompres press agency reported the following day. The Bucharest prosecutor's office said in a statement: "There are indications that suggest [Hayssam's] connections with people suspected of having been implicated in the kidnapping of the three Romanian citizens in Iraq." Hayssam's brother was arrested in Baghdad on 6 April and reportedly confessed to his involvement in the abductions. Yusif Manaf was also detained in Baghdad, Antena 1 television reported on 6 April. Romanian presidential spokeswoman Adriana Saftoiu denied to reporters on 6 April that the hostages were freed, but media reports have indicated that they may now be on the grounds of the Romanian Embassy in Baghdad. (Kathleen Ridolfo)

PROFILE: IBRAHIM AL-JA'FARI. Many would say that Ibrahim al-Ja'fari is the logical choice to lead Iraq's transitional stage. Long viewed as a man of principle, he has always stood firm in his call for a democratic and pluralistic Iraq and has never shied away from expressing his opinions on the future of Iraq -- even when those opinions challenged the Iraqi opposition, and, at times, U.S. policy.

Al-Ja'fari's main rival for the position was Iraqi National Congress (INC) head Ahmad Chalabi; however, he dropped out of the running during negotiations within the United Iraqi Alliance early on 22 February. Interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi announced on 21 February that his party has nominated him for the post of transitional prime minister.

Ibrahim al-Ja'fari was born in Karbala in 1947. He earned a medical degree from Mosul University in 1974. Al-Ja'fari joined the Islamic Al-Da'wah (Call) Party in the 1960s at a time when the party grew more politicized in the wake of the Ba'athist ascendancy to power.

Exiled to Iran during the Ba'athist crackdown on the party in 1980, al-Ja'fari later moved to the United Kingdom in 1989. During the Iraqi opposition's years of exile, he was vocal in his belief that a democratic Iraq should not emulate an Iranian-style theocracy. At the time, he also stood against U.S. or international intervention in Iraq, preferring instead for an Iraqi-led toppling of the regime. Al-Ja'fari told London's "Al-Hayat" in January 1999: "We view the future of Iraq from an Islamic standpoint as well as from the prism of our national values.... We will do all we possibly can in order to be able to knock out the dictatorship that had been imposed on our people by Saddam [Hussein] and then go on to supplant it with a constitution-based multiparty system of government under which the people of the nation must breathe freer and exercise their inalienable right to put in place a government that they should choose themselves."

Regarding ongoing U.S. military activities against the Hussein regime, al-Ja'fari said in the same 1999 interview that he believed such attacks were designed "to take out our nation's economic and civilian structure." "We do not and will not tolerate such rocket attacks on our country. This is terrorism pure and simple. It has brought on our patient people the worst kind of woes and torment and spread fear and panic."

Widely viewed as a conciliator, al-Ja'fari called in 1999 for disparate opposition parties to form a united position against the Hussein regime, while maintaining their distance from U.S. attempts to court the opposition. It was his belief at the time that the involvement of any outside party in the opposition's activities would affect the opposition's ability to operate independently, and potentially discredit its reputation inside Iraq. Al-Ja'fari was also opposed to the sanctions regime, which he said contributed to the Iraqi people's suffering, rather than alleviating it.

That same year, al-Ja'fari was also a signatory to a letter published in London's "Dar Al-Islam" magazine that chastised the Iranian regime for its treatment of Iraqis living in Iraq. The letter claimed that the regime's harassment and expulsion of Iraqis called into question the credibility of the Islamic Revolution in Iran and its claim to be "a haven for the oppressed and protector of the deprived in the world."

In January 2000, Al-Da'wah Party spokesman Muhammad Mahdi al-Asefi resigned after members of the party's leadership rejected his call for the appointment of a representative of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to the party's political bureau. Al-Ja'fari told London's "Al-Zaman" in a 25 January 2000 interview that the party's political leadership did not want to link itself to the Islamic leadership in Iran. He told "Al-Zaman" a week later that al-Asefi "thinks that there should be actual implementation of what Khamenei thinks or what is thought by any person who represents Khamenei in the various positions of the party. This will ensure the relationship between the post of Velayat-e Faqih [rule of the supreme jurisprudence as practiced in Iran] and the party post." The party rejected al-Asefi's proposal. "In our opinion, the centralization or decentralization of the Islamic state is an issue that falls under Islamic jurisprudence and thinking. This is based on determining the Islamic rulings that allow or disallow the plurality of the state," al-Ja'fari said.

Al-Ja'fari stressed to "Al-Zaman" that Al-Da'wah is "an Iraqi movement in the Iraqi arena." He also emphasized his party's approach to politics that many would later describe as al-Ja'fari's own style. "When Al-Da'wah proposes a plan or is a key partner to a plan...[it] works on expanding what is common between it and other political parties, whether they are Islamists or non-Islamists. It does this so as to ensure that the desired [result] has a broad base of agreement," he said. "A successful politician is one who levels with his people and who has flexibility and frankness."

By early 2002, al-Ja'fari was still opposed to a U.S. overthrow of the Hussein regime. As the Iraqi opposition worked with the U.S. administration to form working groups ahead of a possible U.S.-led invasion, the party maintained its stance, saying a solution would not come from abroad, but rather from inside Iraq, "Al-Hayat" reported on 12 April 2002.

Al-Ja'fari also voiced his skepticism over plans for a major opposition conference in the fall of 2002, telling London's "Al-Majallah" in October of that year that he believed the conference's preparatory committee, which was made up of opposition parties Iraqi National Congress, Constitutional Monarchy Movement, Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), Iraqi National Accord, Kurdistan Democratic Party, and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, was undemocratic and would, he predicted, dictate its recommendations and decisions on the other Iraqi opposition parties. He called for an expanded preparatory committee that would reflect all trends in Iraqi society.

In reality, "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" reported on 11 October 2002, those groups opposed to the conference were weary of the Iraqi National Congress's close relationship with the United States and the former's attempts to practice custodianship over the other parties. The conference was finally held in December 2002, with Al-Da'wah and several other groups boycotting participation. Al-Ja'fari did begin a series of meetings with U.S. officials, however, while continuing to express his reservations about a U.S.-led invasion.

When opposition parties began discussions for the convening of a national conference that might form a transitional government in May 2003, al-Ja'fari told "Al-Zaman" that "The [Al-Da'wah] party calls for the formation of a provisional Iraqi government consisting of a diverse structure that represents the Iraqi street...comprising all the political, ethnic, and denominational sectors of Iraqi society." He later joined the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council in July 2003, and acted as the council's first rotational president. In that position, he initiated contact with Iraq's neighbors, and helped form a constitutional committee on the council. He was one of the first to call for nationwide elections in Iraq, telling in December 2003, "Any elections are better than none at all."

In February 2004, al-Ja'fari took the lead in trying to heal a long-standing Shi'ite rift that reemerged between SCIRI and rebel cleric Muqtada al-Sadr by calling for a united stand. He adopted the principle of federalism, telling Jeddah's "Ukaz" that month: "Federalism will be a good thing if it safeguards Iraq's unity and revolves around the sovereignty and unity of Iraq's soil, skies, resources, and people.... Federalism does not violate our history or our Islamic faith and beliefs. It should be looked at objectively."

Al-Ja'fari was subsequently appointed interim vice president in July 2004. He supported the need for a strong security apparatus, and the imposition of martial law as a necessity under the current security environment. One of his principal tasks was mediating the August standoff between multinational forces and militants loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr in Al-Najaf.

Throughout the two years since the fall of the Hussein regime, al-Ja'fari has proven himself to be a leader who seeks to be inclusive. He has strong relations with Shi'ite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, but has not been one to kowtow to the ayatollah's every demand. Al-Ja'fari stood in support of the Transitional Administrative Law despite al-Sistani's objection to it, and reportedly has been criticized in recent months by some within the religious establishment in Al-Najaf for not taking a firm Islamist stand on some issues.

Al-Ja'fari has said recently that if he was prime minister he would work to include Sunnis in the political process. "I believe we should include them in the government," he said. "I cannot imagine a government without Sunnis, Shi'ites, and Kurds because they are the three main components of the Iraqi society." (Kathleen Ridolfo)