BAGHDAD -- Ahmed Chalabi, a secular Shi'ite once known for his ties to Washington, and Dr. Ibrahim Jaafari, the conservative interim vice president, will face off in a secret ballot today to determine who will be the Shi'ite majority's choice for Iraqi prime minister, officials said.
The decision to hold a secret ballot was made after the clergy-backed United Iraqi Alliance, which has most of the seats in the 275-member National Assembly, was unable to decide on a nominee -- despite days of negotiations.
Chalabi spokesman Haidar al-Moussawi said the most powerful man in predominantly Shi'ite Iraq, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, met with interim Finance Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi in the southern city of Najaf and gave his backing for whatever decision the alliance makes.
"Al-Sistani assured that whoever the alliance will choose, he will agree on him," Moussawi said.
Although Chalabi and his supporters assert that he had the support needed for the nomination, the vote between the two 58-year-old men was anything but a sure thing.
The Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the main group making up the alliance, had tried to persuade Chalabi to quit the race, some of its senior officials said.
Whoever wins the ballot, he will face interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, 59, whose party came in third after a Kurdish coalition and received 40 seats.
Jaafari, the president of the Islamic Dawa Party, is also Western-oriented but is considered by many to be a cleric in a business suit.
Chalabi is a former exile leader who heavily promoted the idea that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction but later fell out with some key members of the Bush administration over allegations that he passed secrets to Iran.
A two-thirds majority -- 182 seats -- is needed to confirm the next president, two vice presidents, the prime minister, and his Cabinet. The presidential posts are largely ceremonial and the true power lies with the prime minister.
Alliance representatives had gathered yesterday to decide which two candidates would face a secret ballot among its 140 members elected to the assembly Jan. 30. The main contenders and power-brokers later had dinner in a heavily fortified building that serves as the headquarters for Abdel-Aziz al-Hakim, leader of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq.
According to insiders, mostly in the Chalabi camp, he has the support of about 80 members -- a group said to represent independents, Kurds, women, and those close to radical Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
Meanwhile, US Marines targeted insurgents in raids on houses on the second day of an offensive in several troubled cities west of Baghdad.
In Ramadi, Marines set up checkpoints, searched cars, imposed a nighttime curfew, and sealed off sections of the city.