Jaafari sees off rival in race to be Iraqi PM

IBRAHIM al-Jaafari looks set to become the new prime minister of Iraq after the country’s main Shiite alliance gave him its unanimous support for the job.

Mr Jaafari, Iraq’s interim vice- president, had faced competition from inside the alliance from the former exile Ahmad Chalabi, a man once favoured by the Pentagon. But he withdrew as a candidate at a meeting in Baghdad yesterday, and the alliance unanimously approved Mr Jaafari.

"The priority now is security ... it affects all other issues, such as the economy and rebuilding," Mr Jaafari, 58, told a news conference. He said he would work to improve the capability of the security forces and increase their numbers if he became prime minister.

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He still faces a challenge from the incumbent interim prime minister, Ayad Allawi. But Mr Allawi’s list won only 14 per cent of the vote in the election, while the Shiite alliance won 48 per cent - enough for a majority in the National Assembly - and has insisted on having the top job.

Mr Jaafari, a physician and father of five, was a member of the US-appointed governing council that ran Iraq after the 2003 war. He joined Dawa - Iraq’s oldest Islamic movement - in 1966, but fled to Iran in 1980 after a crackdown on the party in which thousands of his comrades were killed.

The Shiite alliance’s decision to nominate him for the prime minister’s job is likely to herald more horse-trading between his supporters and those of Mr Allawi, a secular Shiite and the only other candidate in the running. But with 140 seats in the new 275-seat assembly to Mr Allawi’s 40, Mr Jaafari’s list has the upper hand.

A Kurdish list, which came second in the election and has 75 seats, has steered clear of the fight for the prime minister’s post and appears happy to settle for securing the presidency for its man, Jalal Talabani.

Insurgents yesterday reminded the future government of the challenges it will face by detonating a car bomb near an Iraqi army convoy as it left Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone. Two soldiers were killed and 30 wounded by the blast, which sprayed shrapnel over a wide area and could be heard across the city.

The US military said one of its marines had been killed in western Anbar province, where American and Iraqi forces have launched a major campaign to flush out insurgents. The death took the number of US troops killed in action in Iraq since the March 2003 invasion to 1,125.

The human rights group Amnesty International also gave Iraq’s future leaders food for thought yesterday, publishing a report that claimed Iraqi women were no better off now than under Saddam Hussein. The report, "Iraq - Decades of Suffering", accused some US soldiers of abusing Iraqi women, allegations that Washington said it would investigate.

There was more positive news, from a Shiite area of Baghdad, where an Iraqi army brigade became the first in the country to take control of its area from US-led forces - a symbolic moment that the Americans hope will be repeated across the country, allowing it eventually to withdraw its 150,000 troops. The Iraqi commander of the brigade hailed the handover as "a historic event in the history of Iraq".

Meanwhile, Australia announced that it was sending a further 450 soldiers to Iraq to bolster the 800 troops it already has in the country.

The extra soldiers will be based in southern Muthanna province and will guard Japanese engineers and train the Iraqi army after the withdrawal of Dutch soldiers from the area next month. John Howard, the Australian prime minister, said he had made the decision to send more troops after phone calls from his counterparts Tony Blair and Junichiro Koizumi, of Japan. British forces are responsible for security in the region.