Daily Telegraph: Iraq named its first democratically elected head of government in 50 years yesterday.
Ibrahim Jaafari, a Shia politician backed by Islamic clerics and with close ties to Iran, was appointed prime minister at a ceremony in Baghdad.
Daily Telegraph

By Adrian Blomfield in Baghdad

Iraq named its first democratically elected head of government in 50 years yesterday.

Ibrahim Jaafari, a Shia politician backed by Islamic clerics and with close ties to Iran, was appointed prime minister at a ceremony in Baghdad.

Chosen by his Shia dominated United Iraqi Alliance (UIA), which won 51 per cent of the vote in January's election, the 58-year-old doctor was characteristically sombre as he accepted the most powerful position in government.

"Today represents a big day forward and a big responsibility for me," he said.

Iyad Allawi, the outgoing prime minister who is likely to become leader of the opposition, immediately tendered his resignation. But he is likely to continue until Mr Jaafari names a cabinet, which could take a month.

Mr Jaafari inherits one of the world's most difficult jobs: running a country plagued by violence and increasingly divided along sectarian lines.

Though he is popular among the majority Shia community and tolerated by Kurds, the junior partner in the new ruling coalition, many Sunni Arabs are hostile towards him.

"What does he know about Iraq?" demanded Mustafa Saidi, a Sunni businessman in Baghdad. "He was out of the country for 20 years. He is a weak man, a disaster, who will never be able to unite Iraq. Everyone knows he is just an Iranian spy."

Though US officials were quick to praise the appointment - George W Bush was among world leaders who telephoned the new prime minister - many in Washington fear Mr Saidi could be right.

Fifteen years ago the rise of the UIA, largely made up of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) and its close ally, Mr Jaafari's Da'wa party, would have caused consternation in the White House.

After the 1991 Gulf War, Mr Bush's father refused to support a Shia uprising to topple Saddam Hussein largely because it was spearheaded by the Badr Corps, SCIRI's armed wing.

Like Da'awa, the party was based in Teheran and funded by the Iranian government, which fought an eight-year war with Iraq in the 1980s. The Reagan administration supported Saddam in that conflict.

Mr Jaafari, who spent his exile in Teheran and London, wants to distance himself from his old Iranian patrons.

But it remains unclear whether he will turn Iraq into a pro-western democracy that would set an example for the rest of the Middle East or pursue a course of conservative theocracy modelled on the Iranian system.

Desperate to vindicate its invasion two years ago, America insists that Mr Jaafari will remain on side. "If we can turn Walid Jumblatt we can turn Ibrahim Jaafari," said a White House official, referring to the once passionately anti-American Lebanese opposition leader.

"He's our boy now, not Iran's."

Neighbouring Saudi Arabia and Jordan would disagree. Politicians there have spoken of the rise of a "Shia crescent", stretching from Iran, through Iraq and into Syria, which could destabilise the entire Middle East.

Mr Jaafari's success is likely to depend on whether he can convince the Sunni Arabs, who make up the bulk of the insurgency, that he is, above all else, an Iraqi nationalist.

Despite his party's strong religious base, Mr Jaafari, a softly spoken man who dresses in pinstripe suits, insists he is just that.

Also stressing his religious moderation, he has said a new constitution, supposed to be drafted by August, will not be solely based on Koranic law, or Sharia.

The man many Sunni Arab opponents really fear, however, is not Mr Jaafari but Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the Iranian-born Shia cleric who exercises enormous influence over the UIA.

They see him as both the real power in the country and a Trojan horse for a theocracy run from Teheran.

Sistani aides deny these allegations and say he backs a secular government in which he will do no more than offer guidance if it is needed.