After winning a majority of seats in Iraq's new national assembly, the combined Shi'a parties picked their candidate for prime minister: Ibrahim al-Jaafari, who has served in high office since the Americans occupied Iraq.
Dr. al-Jaafari leads the Shi'a Islamic Dawaa Party, which staged a revolt in the 1970's against Saddam Hussein's Baathist regime. An estimated 77,000 of its members were killed before the rebellion ended in 1982. By then, Dr. al-Jaafari had fled Iraq for Iran and later moved to London. He returned to Iraq in April 2003 after Saddam's ouster.
Ibrahim al-Jaafari is described by al-Hayat's Washington bureau chief, Salameh Nematt, as more political than ideological. "He's a moderate Islamist and a shrewd politician. He's capable of building alliances. He does have strong support among Iraqis on a popular level. According to one public opinion poll, he was number one among the candidates."
Phoebe Marr at the U.S. Institute for Peace says Dr. al-Jaafari's inclusive political style reflects the Daawa party's effort to reach far beyond its original base of support. "He represents a religious party which has always had a strong lay component. Its leadership is not necessarily cleric. So there's a certain amount of secularism and willingness to compromise. Daawa also has a reputation of being an Iraqi party not so tied to Iran."
Kurdish political official Qubad Talabani says the Shi'a parties' choice for prime minister faces the daunting task of reconciling Iraq's many factions. Mr. Talabani also says that a close Shi'a alliance with the elections' second-biggest winner, the Kurds, would create an effective government. "Ibrahim al-Jaafari is a known quantity to most who are in the Iraqi opposition. The question now is whether this gentleman can actually work with the other elements of Iraqi society. The fact that the Shi'a bloc, the United Iraqi Alliance, did not get the overwhelming majority that it sought means that the Kurdish bloc can play a pivotal role here."
If confirmed as prime minister, Dr. al-Jaafari will have to reach across many divisions to unify the government and Iraq. A prominent Sunni official, current Iraqi Minister of Industry Hachem al-Hassani, says that the nominee knows the scope of that challenge and the Sunni are not easily reconciled with the Shi'a victory. "Dr. al-Jaafari understands that Iraq has three components - Shi'a, Sunni, and Kurd. Besides, he faces a very strong secular group in Iraq. It's not going to be easy to deal with him and the alliance until we have a constitution and we have another election."
Shi'a political official Kareem al-Musawi says the Sunni must be fully involved in the political process to give legitimacy to the incoming government. "The Sunni, we have to build inside the circle, inside the tent, to create an Iraqi consensus in this very crucial time."
There are efforts underway to block Dr. al-Jaafari. A separate bid for prime minister has been launched by Iyad Allawi, who is current interim prime minister and close to the Americans. There is even speculation, as noted by al-Hayat's Salameh Nematt, that he might seek the help of a fellow Shi'a politician, the controversial Ahmed Chalabi, to oppose Dr. al-Jaafari.
"Iyad Allawi is trying to portray him as an Islamist who would probably turn Iraq into an Islamist state. Allawi is hoping to split the Shi'a-led Iraqi Alliance. Allawai, who is the nemesis of Ahmed Chalabi might join hands with Chalabi if he feels he can undermine al-Jaafari. Both men hate each other, but they also hate al-Jaafari," he says.
Officially installing Iraq's new prime minister and other leaders is a complicated process. First, the just-elected Transitional National Assembly will meet in March and appoint a three-member assembly leadership. This in turn selects a president for Iraq and two vice-presidents, who become what is called the Presidency Council. The council will officially nominate a prime minister, who must be approved by the National Assembly.
But all of this is only temporary. Once assembly members write Iraq's constitution and get it approved by referendum, another round of elections will be held to fill positions in the permanent government the constitution creates. As both international and Iraqi observers have said, Iraq is a "democracy in progress."