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Iraqi Shiites delay choosing premier


BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Shiite political leaders postponed a decision yesterday on who would be Iraq's new prime minister, saying they would take a vote today if efforts to pick a candidate by consensus had not succeeded by then.

The main Shiite alliance, which won the largest bloc of seats in the December elections, had expected to nominate Adel Abdul Mahdi yesterday, spokesmen said. Mahdi, a moderate Islamist who belongs to the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the alliance's largest party, is well liked by Sunni Arab and Kurdish leaders expected to take part in a national unity government.

But Ibrahim al-Jaafari, Iraq's current prime minister and the other leading candidate for the post, has refused to withdraw his name from contention, and he still commands wide support among the Shiite ranks.

"All of us want to pick a new prime minister by consensus," said Sami al-Askari, an independent member of the alliance. "But it seems none of the candidates are willing to withdraw."

The Shiite leaders will meet today in one more effort to pick a premier by consensus. If that fails, as is now expected, they will conduct a secret ballot, the results of which will be final, al-Askari said.

Under Iraq's constitution, the largest bloc in the parliament has the right to pick a prime minister, who will lead the country's first full-term government.

Al-Jaafari has been widely criticized in and out of the Shiite alliance in the past year, and he had been expected to step down. But he still has the support of his Dawa Party and of the followers of the Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, groups that each have 30 of the alliance's 128 seats. The Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq also has 30 seats, and it has supported Mahdi, as does the smaller Fadhila Party. The nonaffiliated, or independent, bloc is split between the candidates.

Under the constitution, the new parliament must meet within two weeks to select a speaker. That meeting will trigger other deadlines, and if all goes according to plan, the government will be complete by mid-April. But previous governments have not met their deadlines, and the negotiations could be more difficult now that the parliament includes a broader range of groups with widely differing views on crucial issues such as federalism and the role of religion.

Also yesterday, in the southern city of Basra, gunmen shot dead Capt. Makram al-Abbasi, an Iraqi army spokesman, officials said. The gunmen drove a Toyota sedan that is familiar from other assassinations carried out by militias in Basra, and it was accompanied by a police car, said an Iraqi army official who spoke on the condition of anonymity, for fear of reprisals. Shiite militias have infiltrated Basra's police and government, and assassinations have become common.

The motive for killing al-Abbasi, a Sunni Arab originally from Mosul, was unclear.

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