Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Bush Opposes Iraq's Premier, Shiites Report

The New York Times
Bush Opposes Iraq's Premier, Shiites Report

BAGHDAD, Iraq, March 28 — The American ambassador has told Shiite officials that President Bush does not want the Iraqi prime minister to remain the country's leader in the next government, senior Shiite politicians said Tuesday.

It is the first time the Americans have directly expressed a preference in the furious debate over the country's top job, the politicians said, and it is inflaming tensions between the Americans and some Shiite leaders.

The ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad, told the head of the main Shiite political bloc at a meeting on Saturday to pass on a "personal message from President Bush" to the interim prime minister, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, said Redha Jowad Taki, a Shiite member of Parliament who was at the meeting.

Mr. Khalilzad said Mr. Bush "doesn't want, doesn't support, doesn't accept" Mr. Jaafari as the next prime minister, according to Mr. Taki, a senior aide to Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, the head of the Shiite bloc. It was the first "clear and direct message" from the Americans on a specific candidate for prime minister, Mr. Taki said.

The Shiite bloc, which won a plurality in the parliamentary election in December, nominated Mr. Jaafari last month to retain his post for four more years.

American officials in Baghdad did not dispute the Shiite politicians' account of the conversation, though they would not discuss the details of the meeting. A spokeswoman for the American Embassy confirmed that Mr. Khalilzad met with Mr. Hakim on Saturday. But she declined to comment on what was said.

"The decisions about the choice of the prime minister are entirely up to the Iraqis," said the spokeswoman, Elizabeth Colton. "This will be an Iraqi decision."

In Washington, the State Department said it would not comment on diplomatic conversations, but Adam Ereli, the deputy spokesman, reiterated American support for "a government of national unity with strong leadership that can unify all Iraqis."

The Americans have harshly criticized the Jaafari government in recent months for supporting Shiite militias that have been fomenting sectarian violence and pushing Iraq closer to full-scale civil war.

Mr. Khalilzad has sharpened his criticism in the last week, saying the militias are now killing more people than the Sunni Arab-led insurgency. American officials have expressed growing concern that Mr. Jaafari is incapable of reining in the private armies, especially since Moktada al-Sadr, the anti-American cleric who leads the most volatile militia, is Mr. Jaafari's most powerful backer.

Haider al-Ubady, a spokesman for Mr. Jaafari, said the prime minister had received the ambassador's message and accused the Americans of trying to subvert Iraqi sovereignty.

Tensions between Shiite leaders and the American government, which had been rising for months, boiled over after an assault on Sunday night by American and Iraqi forces on a Shiite mosque compound in northern Baghdad.

Shiite leaders say at least 17 civilians were killed in the battle, most of them members of a Shiite political party. American commanders say the soldiers fought insurgents.

The reported American pressure over Mr. Jaafari's nomination is another sign of White House impatience over the deadlocked talks to form a new government. American officials say the impasse has created a power vacuum that has encouraged lawlessness and civil conflict.

The nomination has become one of the most contentious issues in those talks, with the main Kurdish, Sunni Arab and secular blocs calling for the Shiites to replace Mr. Jaafari. On Monday, Shiite leaders suspended their participation in the negotiations, saying they were enraged by the assault on the mosque complex.

In Baghdad on Tuesday, at least 21 people were abducted in four separate incidents in the biggest wave of kidnappings in a month, an Interior Ministry official said. In one incident, 15 men in Iraqi Army uniforms dragged at least six people from a money exchange shop and stole nearly $60,000. In two other cases, people wearing Interior Ministry commando uniforms snatched victims from two electronics shops.

The police in western Baghdad discovered 14 bodies on Tuesday, all killed execution-style with gunshots to the head, apparently the latest victims of sectarian bloodletting. On Monday, Iraqi forces found 18 bodies near Baquba with similar wounds. Earlier reports of 30 beheaded bodies found in that area were wrong, the Interior Ministry official said.

An American soldier was killed Tuesday by small-arms fire in Baghdad, and another was killed and three were wounded by a roadside bomb outside Habbaniya, the American military said.

The Iraqi security minister, Abdul Karim al-Enizi, said on the state-run Iraqiya network on Tuesday night that the Iraqi forces who had raided the mosque compound in Baghdad were not part of the Interior or Defense Ministry. A survivor said the soldiers did not speak Arabic well, implying they may have been Kurdish militiamen working with Americans, Mr. Enizi said.

At the Pentagon, senior officials defended the raid, releasing photographs they said proved that weapons and bomb-making materials had been seized inside the compound, which they described as a school complex that had been turned into a base for a "hostage ring."

When the soldiers entered the compound, "they found that there was a building there that had a small minaret and a prayer room inside it," said Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "Some people are calling that a mosque."

The surge in violence has shaken confidence in Mr. Jaafari, who has been widely criticized by Iraqis for failing to smash the Sunni-led insurgency, letting Shiite death squads run rampant and doing little on reconstruction.

Mr. Jaafari won the Shiite bloc's nomination for prime minister by one vote in a secret ballot of its members of Parliament, beating out the deputy of Mr. Hakim, the bloc's leader. As the largest bloc, with 130 of the 275 seats, the Shiites have the right to nominate the prime minister.

But a two-thirds vote of Parliament is required for approval of the new government. As long as the other major blocs oppose Mr. Jaafari, the process is at a standstill.

Thom Shanker and Steven R. Weisman contributed reporting from Washington for this article.