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No clear replacement if Iraq's PM Jaafari goes

Written by: Staff

Baghdad, Apr 4: Even if Ibrahim al-Jaafari steps down as prime minister to end Iraq's political deadlock, finding a replacement looks problematic and no potential candidate offers any magic solution to the country's many woes.

U S Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her British counterpart Jack Straw have added their weight to the many calls for the Shi'ite leader to step down to break the impasse over forming a government, four months after elections.

After meeting Shi'ite, Kurdish and Sunni politicians during an unannounced two-day visit, they said Iraqi leaders listened to their demands to quickly form a unity government that can avert a slide to sectarian civil war.

But even Jaafari's allies in the main Shi'ite bloc who broke ranks and urged him to step aside say they have no clear replacement in mind, raising the possibility of a prolonged leadership paralysis as sectarian violence rages.

''We are not going to discuss a candidate inside the Alliance because this will create a crisis inside the Alliance,'' said Abbas Bayati, a senior member of the Shi'ite bloc.

The Shi'ite Alliance, as the biggest bloc in parliament, has the right to nominate the prime minister. If Jaafari were to give up the nomination he won in an internal ballot in February, it is unclear how the Alliance would choose a new candidate.

''It is still not clear who is going to replace Jaafari. There are many names but each one will face objections from one side or another,'' a senior source in the Alliance told Reuters.

A few names of possible candidates have been floating around as pressure piles on Jaafari, a soft-spoken physician who critics say has failed to stem bloodshed and rescue the economy.

But each is vulnerable to both the communal minefields that dominate Iraqi politics and fierce rivalries within the Shi'ite bloc and no clear plan is on the table.

Possible candidates

''We just want to get rid of him and then the other issues could be discussed,'' said another senior Alliance source. Vice President Adel Abdul Mahdi of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), the French-trained economist who lost the nomination to Jaafari by one vote, is popular among the Kurds and Western officials.

But he would face stiff resistance from Jaafari's main ally in the Shi'ite bloc, firebrand cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, a former rebel leader who became a kingmaker after he embraced politics. Votes from Sadr's supporters won Jaafari the nomination.

''Adel Abdul Mahdi has better chances but he is unlikely to be the next prime minister because he is SCIRI and Dawa (Jaafari's party) will block him. He is competition,'' said a Kurdish official.

Hussein al-Shahristani, a senior independent member of the Alliance who has won the blessing of top Shi'ite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, is a nuclear physicist who was jailed and tortured under Saddam Hussein.

But Iraqi political analysts say he lacks the charisma to run a deeply divided country.

Independent politician Kasim Daoud was the first to break the Alliance's public silence over its objections to Jaafari.

With the backing of Sistani, he is seen as a possible candidate for the top job in the government.

But Daoud may have been tarnished by his role as a state minister for security affairs under former prime minister Iyad Allawi, whose major U.S.-led offensives against Sunni and Shi'ite rebels were unpopular among Iraqis.

''The political front is stalled, it is not moving forward not even for a little step,'' said the senior Alliance source.

With no obvious contenders, the Alliance may be forced to consult with other Shi'ite, Sunni and Kurdish parties on nominating a candidate.

''If Jaafari steps down the decision on his replacement won't be only for the Alliance. We will have to consult all other blocs before naming one to avoid repeating what happened with Jaafari,'' said the senior Alliance source.

But sectarian tensions could turn that process into another stalemate. Accusations are already flying.

''The obstacle has never been Jaafari but it was more what other lists wanted to gain from this, from weakening him. The purpose was to weaken the Alliance.'' said Bayati.


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