Supporters of anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr began voting Friday in a referendum to decide whom his party should support to be Iraq's next prime minister. Sadr's Shi'ite religious party won 39 seats in the March 7 parliamentary election, making him a likely kingmaker in the efforts to form a new governing coalition.
al-Sadr supporters gathered Friday after voting on a referendum at a polling station in Baghdad. The anti-American cleric has asked his partisans to decide whom he should support in the battle over which of several candidates will become Iraq's next prime minister.
Hazem al Arajee, a Muqtada al-Sadr ally and spokesman, defended the referendum and noted that Sadr supporters were being given the names of five candidates for prime minister from which to chose:
He says that the referendum gives Iraqis' all across the country the chance to decide who will be prime minister. He adds that it will also put and end to political pressure being used on his party to side with one side or the other.
Hossam Mumin, who is heading up the referendum, told al Baghdadiya TV that Sadrist voters were doing their "patriotic duty" by voting, and he dismissed charges that the referendum was "illegal" or "unconstitutional."
Both outgoing Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi are competing to head the next government and Sadr's bloc of 39 seats could play a decisive role in determining which of the two men, if either, gets the nod. Several dark-horse candidates also want the job.
Mr. Maliki was shown on government TV meeting with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani to discuss talks to form a new government. Rival Iyad Allawi should theoretically get the first chance at forming a coalition after winning 91 seats to Mr. Maliki's 89. Mr. Maliki, however, continues to insist that he will put together the next government.
Ammar Hakim, leader of the once powerful Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council, meanwhile, has come out in support of Ayad Allawi. Hakim, who took over from his father after he died of cancer, denounced attempts by some Shi'ites to discredit Allawi by branding him a Ba'athist:
He says that he's heard a lot of talk about Allawi's Iraqiya bloc being a "Ba'athist" list. He says that he doesn't know all the members of Allawi's party, but insists that he's sure that neither Allawi nor his party are Ba'athists.
He defends Allawi, calling him a dear friend, partner and ally during decades of struggle against Saddam Hussein. He argues that excluding Allawi's bloc from the government would be tantamount to excluding an important part of Iraqi society, and he says that his party will not participate in the government if Allawi is excluded.///End Opt///
During Friday prayers at a large, mainstream Shi'ite mosque in Karbala, south of Baghdad, cleric Seyyed al Sabee told worshippers that all Iraqi politicians must cooperate in the interests of the country as a whole:
He says that there must be concessions made by all parties and that no one side should win on all counts and give up nothing. Every one of the four winning parties in the March 7 election he stresses needs the others to make the country function properly. Above all, he argues, we must think of the best interests of the country.
An alliance of 163 seats is needed to form a governing coalition in the upcoming Iraqi parliament, which will have 325 members. It is still not clear if either Ayad Allawi or Nouri al-Maliki will form the next government, and it is also possible that dark horse candidates Ibrahim al- Jaafari, Adel Abdul-Mahdi, or Jaffar al-Sadr could ultimately be chosen instead. U.S. officials have warned that forming a new Iraqi government "could take weeks."