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New Iraqi President Sworn In; Jaafari Is Named Prime Minister

NY News | April 7, 2005
By ROBERT F. WORTH and CHRISTINE HAUSER

BAGHDAD, Iraq - A Kurdish militia leader who fought Saddam Hussein for decades was sworn in as president of Iraq today, making him the first Kurd to serve as president of an Arab-dominated country, and Ibrahim al-Jaafari, a religious Shiite, was named prime minister, the most powerful post in the new government.
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In addition, a Shiite politician and a Sunni were sworn in as deputies to the new president, Jalal Talabani, who was named to the position on Wednesday by Iraq's national assembly as Mr. Hussein watched the proceedings on a television inside his prison. The swearing-in of Mr. Talabani, 72, and the vice presidents - Sheik Ghazi al-Yawar, the Sunni president of the interim government, and Adel Abdul Mahdi, a leading Shiite politician -- formalized the appointments done by a pro forma vote in the assembly on Wednesday, which were the first significant moves by the members to install a government.

Assembly members in the audience stood in an ovation several times during the speech Mr. Talabani made after he took the oath of office with his hand on the Koran. He repeatedly made overtures to the Sunnis, saying how important it was for them to join the government.

"It's an exciting moment in history, don't you think?" Barham Salih, a Kurdish politician and deputy prime minister, told reporters. "We have done it despite all the doubters."

The prime minister of the interim government, Ayad Allawi, submitted his formal resignation but will continue to serve until the new cabinet is formed. Mr. Jaafari said he expects to name a cabinet by Sunday.

Some Shiite and Kurdish members of the assembly had demanded that the interim government resign as soon as Mr. Talabani was sworn in.

The interim government has infuriated many officials from the main Shiite and Kurdish parties, which will dominate the new administration. They accuse Dr. Allawi, a secular Shiite, of having brought back into the government former senior members of the Baath Party who played key roles in oppressing ordinary Iraqis, especially Shiites and Kurds.

The debate on Wednesday foreshadowed what could be a harsh purging of former Baathists once the new leaders, including the prime minister and cabinet, are installed.

"I think the government should resign after the council takes an oath and assumes its duties," said Fouad Massoum, the former head of the interim assembly, referring to the presidency council, which consists of Mr. Talabani and his two deputies.

Hajim al-Hassani, the speaker of the assembly, shot down the suggestion, saying "this parliament can't change the government."

Iraq's Shiites and Kurds are united on some issues, including their intense distrust of Sunni Arabs, a minority group that ruled the country for decades, and their enmity for the Baath Party. On that count, they are likely to work together to revamp the security forces in the Interior and Defense Ministries, which Dr. Allawi, a former Baathist, filled with his allies. Protracted negotiations to form the government have caused many Iraqis to lose faith in their elected leaders. Shiites and Kurds could face heated clashes going forward as they struggle to write a permanent constitution by mid-August and hold full-term elections at year's end.

The unresolved issues include how much autonomy the Kurds will receive, how oil revenues will be split and what role Islam will play in the new government.

In Washington, President Bush praised the assembly after the appointments were made on Wednesday.

"The Iraqi people have shown their commitment to democracy and we, in turn, are committed to Iraq," the president said in a written statement.

Bekhtiyar Amin, the human rights minister and a Kurd, said in a telephone interview that Mr. Hussein and 11 of his top aides watched Wednesday's proceedings, held in the fortified Green Zone, on a television in their detention center near the Baghdad airport. The idea to provide Mr. Hussein with a television for the occasion was taken to Mr. Amin by Kosrat Rasoul, a top official in the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the Kurdish party that Mr. Talabani founded, Mr. Amin said.

"We want them to know that they are not presidents or ministers or anything other than prisoners," Mr. Amin said. "Their time is over."

The appointment of Mr. Talabani brought Kurds out into the streets across Iraqi Kurdistan. People celebrated by waving Kurdish flags, dancing and honking their horns as they drove along crowded roadways. Though some in the north distrust Mr. Talabani and his political machine, most saw the appointment as a historic moment for the Kurds.

Confident in their newfound political muscle, the Kurds are carefully monitoring any moves by the Dawa Islamic Party of Dr. Jaafari and other Shiite parties to enshrine Shariah, or Koranic law. Likewise, the Shiites have chafed at demands by Kurdish leaders that the Kurds retain broad autonomous powers, including maintaining their formidable militia and controlling the vast oil fields around the northern city of Kirkuk.

In the Jan. 30 elections, the Kurdistan Alliance won 75 of the 275 assembly seats, while the main Shiite bloc won 140. Together, the two groups had more than the two-thirds assembly vote needed to install the presidency council.

Because the talks to form a government have taken so long and have been so contentious, assembly members are already saying they may have to invoke the right to extend a deadline for the first draft of the constitution by up to six months. That would in turn push back the elections for a full-term government.

"I don't see how they can avoid the six-month extension," said Larry Diamond, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution who worked for the Coalition Provisional Authority and advised on the interim constitution.

"Without it, they will have to finish the constitution by mid-August," he said. "But they won't even get down to beginning to deliberate on it probably for another month. Then they need time, as I said, to hold public hearings or at least solicit public opinion and discussion. So I think it is truly inevitable now."

As the Shiites and Kurds try to wrap up negotiations over the top government jobs, they have said they want to bring Sunni Arabs into the fold.

If the Sunnis continue to feel disenfranchised, or if the Shiites and Kurds push too hard for a purge of former Baathists, the insurgency could worsen.

Today, the Iraqi defense ministry said that its forces had killed 25 terrorists in an area west of Baquba in a battle on Monday and destroyed rockets and mortars and other weapons. It said Iraqi forces made 31 arrests of fighters on Wednesday in areas in the northern city of Mosul on Wednesday.

The American military said on Wednesday that an American soldier was killed the previous day when his patrol hit a roadside bomb and took small-arms fire. Security conditions surrounding the appointment of Mr. Talabani on Wednesday showed that Baghdad was still very much a city under siege. Apache attack helicopters circled the skies, while the Iraqi police set up checkpoints along the major roads downtown. Yet, there was some joy in the city, especially among the Kurds.

Awat Abdullah, 40, a Kurdish restaurant owner, said he had let more than 25 customers eat lunch for free. "I can't tell you how happy I feel," he said.

Some Arabs voiced their suspicions of Mr. Talabani, and of the Kurdish dream of carving out an independent nation in the north.

"Talabani is well known for his insistence on independence," said Ali Naji, a 33-year-old engineer. "He will work for Kurdistan's sake only."

Though Mr. Talabani is widely regarded as an advocate of Kurdish autonomy, there are many Kurds who accuse him and his party of corruption. In the mid-1990's, he sent his militia into battle against a rival Kurdish party. The result was a civil war that left at least 3,000 Kurds dead and that was quelled only when Mr. Hussein sent armor into the north to beat down Mr. Talabani.

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