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Pressure in on defiant Jaafari to step down.

Combined news reports BAGHDAD--Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her British counterpart, wrapping up a brief visit to Iraq on Monday, attempted to placate the fears of the country's Shiite Muslim majority in anticipation of the expected ouster of interim Prime Minister Ibrahim Al-Jaafari. On his part, Jaafari rejected the growing pressure on him to resign, saying Iraqis must be left to choose their leader democratically. In an interview with Britain's Guardian newspaper on Wednesday, Al Jaafari brushed aside calls from opponents and some political allies to step aside to break a political deadlock. Rice and Foreign Secretary Jack Straw heaped praise on Iraq's highest-ranking Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, whose "remarkable spiritual guidance" has helped calm Iraq, Straw said. They also spoke of the Shiite majority's longtime suffering and reiterated that Shiites had the power to choose the nation's top official. "We know that the largest voting bloc out of the democratic process will nominate that person; that is also only fair in a process like this," Rice told reporters at a news conference. The soothing words came amid a concerted effort on the part of the United States and Britain as well as Iraq's Sunni Arabs, Kurds and a growing chorus of Al-Jaafari's erstwhile Shiite allies to persuade the leader to step aside. Since being nominated for a four-year term in early February by a Shiite bloc that holds 130 of the parliament's 275 seats, Al-Jaafari has been unable to gather enough support to form a cabinet. On Sunday, Rice questioned Al-Jaafari's leadership, saying that "in the time since his nomination on Feb. 11, he's not been able" to put together a government. Al-Jaafari, a religious scholar, gained the Shiite coalition's nomination by a single vote thanks to the support of anti-US Shiite leader Muqtada Al-Sadr. Iraq's Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds have been locked in a frequently violent power struggle since the 2003 US-led toppling of Saddam Hussein's regime. Officials and ordinary Iraqis worry that the political deadlock in creating a new government has created a political vacuum and contributed to ongoing violence, which included several car bombings on Monday and the deaths of at least six US military personnel soldiers killed in violence over the weekend. "You cannot have a circumstance where there is a political vacuum in a country like this that faces so much threat of violence," Rice told reporters. Officials in Washington and London have been seeking the formation of a new government as a sign of progress to bolster faltering public support for the Iraq war. Although Al-Jaafari has refused to resign, even Shiite officials predict his days are numbered. A high-ranking member of Al-Jaafari's alliance, speaking on condition of anonymity, said three of the seven blocs within the Shiite coalition had submitted letters demanding he withdraw. "(Al-) Jaafari won't be the next prime minister," he predicted. "We have told him about what's happening, but he's still hanging on."However, in his interview with the Guardian Jaafari said there is "a decision that was reached by a democratic mechanism and I stand with it. We have to protect democracy in Iraq and it is democracy which should decide who leads Iraq."Analysts say Al-Jaafari's ouster would be no panacea for Iraq's myriad security and political woes. Other potential prime ministerial candidates have serious drawbacks and weaknesses, too. Crossing Al-Sadr, who has emerged as Al-Jaafari's primary patron, could spark unrest in eastern Baghdad and the southern Iraqi cities where the young cleric's militia is active. However, US officials say there may be advantages if one of Al-Jaafari's rivals, especially front-runner Adel Abdul Mahdi, gets the job. Mahdi's boss, Shiite cleric Abdelaziz Hakim, would presumably have to give up the Interior Ministry posts he now controls. Hakim's followers have allowed the Interior Ministry to engage in extra-judicial killings and run secret torture chambers that have become a focal point of sectarian tensions. At the same time, US officials are acutely aware of Hakim's ties to Iran. While Al-Jaafari has been criticized for being too close to Iran, Hakim's party--largely a creation of Iranian security forces in the early 1980s--is likely closer. During an interview on Tuesday with the British Broadcasting Corp., Vice President Adil Abdul Mahdi said he met with Al Jaafari the day before and urged him to give up the nomination because he had lost the confidence of the Sunnis and Kurds, whom the Shiites need to form a new government. But Abdul Mahdi said Al Jaafari refused, insisting he wanted to take his case to parliament, which must approve the new prime minister and his Cabinet by a majority vote. Asked whether Al Jaafari should withdraw his nomination, Abdul Mahdi said: "Yes, after such a time of naming him, not getting approval from others now in UIA (the dominant Shiite political bloc), there is some rejection so I think he should step aside." In a culture that values honor and appearances, US and Iraqi officials must find a face-saving way if Al-Jaafari is to exit. Iraqi officials say the Shiite coalition will hold talks Wednesday and Thursday, hoping to persuade Al-Jaafari to withdraw. One solution might be to put the matter to a vote before the 275-seat parliament and allow the politicians to build new alliances. "The door will be open for anyone to nominate himself," said Suha Azzawi, a political scientist who served on the panel that drafted the constitution last year. "Many people will change their votes, and all the balances will be changed." US and British officials continued efforts to woo the support or neutrality of Sistani, as a countermeasure to Al-Sadr's potential violence. "Although there have been many difficulties, without the remarkable spiritual guidance shown by his eminence, this country, for all the problems that it now faces, would not have in its hands the potential for a very much better future," Straw said. Rice spoke of the mass slayings of Shiites under Saddam, emphasizing their suffering at the hand of his Sunni-led government and reiterating the Shiite bloc's right to appoint a prime minister from within its ranks. "That must be someone who can unify the various blocs," she said. Al Jaafari said no consensus had been reached during talks with Rice and her British counterpart, Jack Straw. "I heard their points of view even though I disagree with them," he told the Guardian. "People will react if they see the rules of democracy being disobeyed.""Every politician and every friend of Iraq should not want people to be frustrated."Pressure in on defiant Jaafari to step down

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Publication:The Star (Amman, Jordan)
Date:Apr 9, 2006
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