BAGHDAD-- A family doctor, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, emerged yesterday as the most likely candidate to become Iraq's first democratically elected prime minister. He said ending the nation's rampant violence is his top priority and that US troops would remain as long as they are needed to achieve that goal.
Jaafari, a 58-year-old moderate Shi'ite politician who fled a brutal crackdown by Saddam Hussein in 1980, also talked about drafting a constitution that will draw not only on Islam for inspiration.
"Islam should be the official religion of the country, and one of the main sources for legislation, along with other sources that do not harm Muslim sensibilities," said Jaafari, who currently serves as Iraq's interim vice president.
He said in an interview that he supports women's rights, including the right to be the president or prime minister, as well as self-determination and individual freedoms for all Iraqis.
Jaafari, who lived in London and is the leader of the Da'wa Party, became the top contender for Iraq's top government post after his main rival, Adel Abdul Mahdi, dropped out. Ahmed Chalabi, a former Pentagon favorite, was still in the running for prime minister, but was considered by many to be a long shot.
"We have two candidates for the alliance, Ahmed Chalabi and Ibrahim al-Jaafari, but al-Jaafari is the most likely to be the alliance candidate," said Humam Hamoudi, a spokesman for the Shi'ite political alliance that has provisionally won more than half the seats in the new National Assembly.
But Chalabi remains a compromise candidate and could be picked as an alternative to Jaafari if opposition to him is too high among Kurds, who took 26 percent of the vote, and Sunni Arabs, who largely stayed away from the polls but whose participation may be needed to quell the stubborn insurgency.
The alliance is endorsed by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the spiritual leader of Iraqi Shi'ites. One of Sistani's aides said yesterday that he has refused to endorse a candidate for prime minister, but has let it be known in the past that he would support Jaafari.
In the interview, Jaafari said that recent deals among Iraq's religious parties pointed toward his victory. "I hear from here and there, but I can't tell to what extent it is a consensus," he said. "I feel like some of our brothers are convinced, but it takes time to reach consensus."
Jaafari said that if he becomes prime minister, he would first try to stymie the violence that has crippled the country's recovery from decades of war and hardship.
"The security situation is at the top, as it is a pressing element," Jaafari said. As a result, he said he would not push for the United States and its allies to withdraw their troops any time soon.
"Blood is being spilled, and the land is under attack. How about if we decided to get these troops out of Iraq?" he said, suggesting that the situation would be much worse than it is now.
But Jaafari has kept some distance from the US occupation.
He boycotted a US-organized meeting of Iraqi politicians near the biblical city of Ur in April 2003. While he served on the Governing Council appointed by the US government shortly after the invasion, he turned down the Americans' offer of protection. But he did serve on the council and became vice president of the interim government that replaced it.
In the interview, he said he shares the Kurdish and Shi'ite desires for federalism. "I am looking for a constitution that would be a clear mirror of the composition of the Iraq people," he said. It should be "based on respecting all Iraqi beliefs and freedoms."
But he opposes any attempts to break Iraq apart, despite a nonbinding referendum in the Kurdish region promoting independence. "Federalism doesn't mean separation from the nation-state," he said.
Iraq's election commission will not certify the provisional results of the Jan. 30 elections, announced Sunday, until all challenges are resolved -- a process which could take days or even weeks. Yesterday, a commission official said at least six complaints had been filed so far. All complaints must be filed by today.
Once the results are certified, the present government must set a timetable for installing the new on. There have been no indications on how long that might take; it will depend on back-room dealmaking among the parties.