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Shiite Group Picks al-Jaafari As Prime Minister

Former Iraqi exile leader Ahmed Chalabi, who was also a top contender for the post of prime minister, withdrew from the race on Tuesday, before a scheduled vote by coalition members. Chalabi said he dropped out “for the unity of the alliance” and would not comment on reports that he had been offered a position in the government if al-Jaafari is elected.

The full, newly elected national assembly plans to convene in the near future in order to elect a prime minister and other national leaders and to write a new constitution. Most decisions by the body, including the selection of a small group that will nominate a prime minister, must be ratified by a two-thirds vote.

Al-Jaafari’s coalition, known as the United Iraqi Alliance, holds 140 of the assembly’s 275 seats, making him the strongest candidate in a race that will decide the leader of Iraq’s first democratically elected government in 50 years.

However, al-Jaafari’s UIA makes up only 48 percent of the national assembly and will therefore have to deal with other large voting blocs like a Kurdish alliance headed by Jalal Talabani, which holds 75 seats, and another Shiite group headed by current interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, which holds 40 seats. Both groups are reportedly calling for their leaders to be given high positions in the new Iraqi government. Members of the Kurdish group have said they want Talabani appointed to the mostly ceremonial post of president.

Al-Jaafari said Tuesday he would consider offering positions to members of other groups and has said he is also open to reviewing the cases of Baath Party members who were dismissed from government service when the United States took over in 2003.

“Whether someone is a member of the alliance or not doesn’t mean they don’t have the opportunity to play a role in this new government,” al-Jaafari said.

Al-Jaafari said his first priority if elected prime minister will be Iraq’s internal security and that he would not call for the immediate departure of U.S. troops.

His coalition is backed by Iraq’s top Shiite clergy, but al-Jaafari has said in the past that the coalition is not interested in installing a religious regime.

Al-Jaafari, 58, is a physician and former exile who returned to Iraq after the U.S. invasion in 2003. He is the head of the Dawa Party, one of 38 Shiite groups that came together to forge a coalition in the wake of the Jan. 30 elections in Iraq. The Dawa Party battled Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime in the 1970s before the former dictator finally crushed it in 1982. The remnants of the party re-emerged in Iran.

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