Iraqis choose leader of new government

Shiite lawmakers today chose Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari to head the new government, selecting the incumbent by a one-vote margin over Vice President Adil Abdul-Mahdi, Shiite officials said.

Al-Jaafari’s win in the Shiite caucus vote is tantamount to appointment, since the law requires the president to offer the post to the choice of the biggest parliament bloc – the Shiites.

Al-Jaafari’s selection is a key step in the formation of Iraq’s next government, which will have a four-year mandate. Iraqi and US authorities hope the government will bring together Iraq’s Shiite Muslim, Sunni Arab and Kurdish leaders and help reduce the violence.

But attacks continued across Baghdad and north of the Iraqi capital today with at least four people killed and 20 wounded in a spate of blasts and shootings. Insurgents also fired a mortar into the heavily guarded Green Zone in central Baghdad, causing no casualties.

Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, a key member of the outgoing government and head of the influential Kurdish Coalition, took little time to issue demands on the makeup of the next government.

Talabani told reporters that the Kurds won’t support al-Jaafari and his Shiite coalition, United Iraqi Alliance, if former premier Ayad Allawi’s secularist Iraqi National List is not included in the Cabinet.

“I stressed to the American ambassador on the necessity of forming a national unity government in which no one will be excluded, especially (Allawi’s) Iraqi List,” Talabani told reporters after meeting US envoy Zalmay Khalilzad.

“The Iraqi List has to take part in the coming government. The Kurdish Coalition will not take part in the coming government unless the Iraqi List takes part in it.”

Several senior Shiite alliance figures have said they opposed Allawi, who like Talabani is a secularist and enjoys good relations with the US, taking a prominent role in the next government.

Allawi has been touted as a possible candidate to be the next interior minister and replace the incumbent Bayan Jabr, a member of the Shiite bloc who Sunni Arabs accuse of directing Shiite-led security forces to kill and kidnap members of the Sunni Arab community.

Jabr denies the claims and Shiite leaders, who were long suppressed by Saddam Hussein’s security forces, have vowed to take control of the interior and defence ministries, posts which run the police and military.

After winning the premiership vote and being praised by Abdul-Mahdi, al-Jaafari said the Shiite coalition will hold talks with others “based on the grand interests of Iraq.”

The US wants Iraqi leaders to form a national unity government which comprises Shiites, Sunni Arabs and Kurds and works together to stamp out Iraq’s raging violence, which is typified by constant attacks against US and Iraqi security forces as well as sectarian violence between armed Shiites and Sunni Arabs.

Drive-by gunmen killed Education Ministry official Karim Selman al-Zaidi in Baqouba, 35 miles northeast of Baghdad, Diyala police’s Joint Co-ordination Centre said.

A suicide attacker detonated his explosives-packed belt in western Baghdad’s Baiyaa district near a police patrol, killing an elderly woman and a policeman and wounding seven people, police said.

Another group of armed men in a speeding car fired at two men in a truck in Baghdad’s southern Dora neighbourhood, killing one and seriously wounding another, police said.

A bomb rigged to a motorcycle exploded shortly before 7am outside a local restaurant near central Baghdad’s Tahrir Square and wounded nine people, police said. A roadside bomb wounded four policemen near a northern Baghdad mosque.

Police found the bodies of at least five men, each of whom had been bound, shot repeatedly and dumped in different parts of Baghdad.

Meanwhile, an explosion in the insurgent stronghold of Ramadi, west of Baghdad, wounded two civilians and damaged eight shops, witnesses said. The cause of the blast was unknown.

Al-Jaafari, of the Islamic Dawa Party, won 64 votes and Abdul-Mahdi, of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, took 63 in a caucus of Shiite legislators who won seats in the December 15 election, officials said. There were two abstentions.

Iraq’s new president will formally designate al-Jaafari – as the choice of the biggest bloc in parliament – once the assembly convenes. The Shiite alliance has the biggest number of seats in the parliament.

Shiite legislators cast their votes at the heavily guarded home of Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, the head of Abdul-Mahdi’s party. Al-Jaafari’s supporters gathered in the compound cheered when word of the outcome emerged from the closed door meeting room.

Al-Jaafari, a physician, spent years in exile in Iran and Britain before returning to his homeland after the US-led coalition ousted Saddam Hussein in 2003.

His government, which took office in April 2005, had been widely criticised for failing to improve the country’s crumbling infrastructure or deal effectively with the Sunni-led insurgency. Al-Jaafari’s supporters had complained of infighting within the Shiite alliance which dominated the outgoing government.

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