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Political Deal Could End Deadlock in Iraqi Parliament

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

There may be a break in efforts to form a new government now, four months after the elections. Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari may be ready to step aside in his bid to continue as the head of the new Iraqi government, the prime minister. NPR's Jamie Tarabay joins us from Baghdad.

Jamie, welcome back, and what is the news?

JAMIE TARABAY reporting:

Well, he didn't actually say, in as many words, if he was going to step aside. What he did say was that, you know, the Shiite alliance voted him in as the candidate, and he was putting a decision back into the hands of the alliance. He said he was ready to do whatever they said.

You know, on some level he actually still believes that he still has the numbers and he'll be voted back in again as the candidate, but it doesn't seem very likely. And we've just--you know, some people that I've spoken to, the different officials in the Iraqi political scene--that just--that it's complete stubbornness on his part just to--and his refusal to step aside has just completely halted any kind of political progress here.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw came a couple of weeks ago to hurry the process along, and they had absolutely no success doing that. And they both said that the failure of this government to put together a national unity government, months after this election, has created a security vacuum in the country.

CHADWICK: Jamie, Mr. al-Jaafari's been insisting, as you say for months, that he would not withdraw, and he repeated that again just yesterday. So, what happened overnight?

TARABAY: The different people that I've spoken to have all come back to me with the same thing; they all say Najaf, the holy city of the Shiites in the south, where the two most influential Shiite religious leaders are: Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-sistani and Muqtada al-Sadr, the radical Shiite cleric, who is Jaafari's biggest supporter in parliament.

Now, apparently, the U.N. Envoy Ashraf Kazi met both of those yesterday and after the meetings and--of course, and then less than 24 hours after Jaafari told everyone that he was the only Shiite candidate for the position, you know, Jaafari's come out and said-- so clearly there's been some influence there.

They've always been very discrete about what they actually say and how they influence the political process. But it's very clear that without their support, the Shiite alliance wouldn't be where it is at the moment.

CHADWICK: Well, is there another candidate? Is there someone they can put in there who will take the process forward?

TARABAY: There are a couple of people in the running. One of the biggest possibilities at the moment is a man called Adel Abdel Mahdi and he's one of the deputy vice presidents. But he is the candidate for the other opposing Shiite faction within the alliance. He's a member of SCIRI, and there, I believe, are strong objections from Ibrahim al-Jaafari's party, which is Dawa, to have anyone who is not from within their own party to be the prime minister.

So, I understand that there is also another person called Ali al-Adib, who is from Dawa, and he's being bandied about as the most likely candidate at the moment, but, you know, that remains to be seen.

CHADWICK: Yeah, who knows? Well, there was supposed to be--there was scheduled a meeting of the parliament today. They again delayed this meeting; they have reset it for Saturday. At this point, can you say how likely it is that parliament actually will meet and try to form a government?

TARABAY: Well, how likely, hmm. It's the second time in one week that they've put this off, you know? And they've only met once since the elections were held more than four months ago. But, I think the pressure is really on them, if only for the sake of convening, to show the people of Iraq that they're actually making progress. I really think that they'll have this session.

The Shiite alliance insists that they'll be able to come up with an alternative by Saturday, and everyone's just watching to see what's going to happen.

CHADWICK: You know, we were supposed to speak with a member--a Shiite member of parliament today, and for the second time in a couple of weeks they cancelled at the last moment and said, oh, we have to go into a meeting. It just sounds as though they're not ready to say anything yet.

TARABAY: I can't pretend to be surprised; I'm very sorry.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CHADWICK: NPR's Jamie Tarabay in Baghdad.

Jamie, thank you.

TARABAY: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jamie Tarabay
After reporting from Iraq for two years as NPR's Baghdad Bureau Chief, Jamie Tarabay is now embarking on a two year project reporting on America's Muslims. The coverage will take in the country's approx 6 million Muslims, of different ethnic, socio-economic and cultural backgrounds, and the issues facing their daily lives as Americans.
Alex Chadwick
For more than 30 years, Alex Chadwick has been bringing the world to NPR listeners as an NPR News producer, program host and currently senior correspondent. He's reported from every continent except Antarctica.