Iraq's embattled prime minister has defiantly refused to give up his claim to head the country's next government in spite of strong American and British pleas for an end to a deadlock which has paralysed the country for almost four months.
In an exclusive interview with the Guardian in Baghdad - his first since Condoleezza Rice and Jack Straw pleaded with him and his rivals for an immediate agreement to prevent a slide to civil war - Ibrahim Jaafari insisted he would continue to carry out his duties.
The Iraqi prime minister, Ibrahim Jaafari. Photograph: Ceerwan Aziz/AP
"I heard their points of view even though I disagree with them," he said, referring to Ms Rice and Mr Straw's hectic arm-twisting visit to the Iraqi capital which ended on Monday.
Mr Jaafari won the nomination for Iraq's leadership by a single vote within the Shia bloc that came out on top in last December's election. But the bloc controls less than half the seats in parliament and so long as the Sunni, Kurdish and secular parties refuse to back him, Iraq is left in a political vacuum. Mr Jaafari, a former doctor who spent years in exile in Britain while Saddam Hussein ruled, will not give way to other candidates from his bloc who have wider support.
Using the argument that the US and Britain had toppled Saddam in order to bring democracy, he turned it against them. "There is a decision that was reached by a democratic mechanism and I stand with it ... We have to protect democracy in Iraq and it is democracy which should decide who leads Iraq. We have to respect our Iraqi people," he said.
Tampering with democracy was risky, he insisted. "People will react if they see the rules of democracy being disobeyed. Every politician and every friend of Iraq should not want people to be frustrated," he said. "Everyone should stick to democratic mechanisms no matter whether they disagree with the person," he added pointedly.
Mr Jaafari also insisted that the historic talks which the US is planning to hold with Iran about the crisis in Iraq should not go over Iraq's head. "When the two countries are talking about Iraq, Iraq must be a member of those talks," he said. "Definitely. Of course. It's in Iraq's interest, and in the interests of the other two countries that an Iraq representative be there, as long as the subject is Iraq."
Mr Jaafari looked stern and mainly unsmiling, as he fingered yellow-brown worry beads in his left hand during the 40-minute interview in his ornate residence, surrounded on three sides by an artificial lake.
He refused to be drawn on whether he felt snubbed by the fact that Ms Rice and Mr Straw invited Adel Abdel Mahdi, the man he beat to the nomination by one vote, to lunch and breakfast during their visit.
Yesterday, in comments to the BBC's Hardtalk programme, Mr Mahdi called on the prime minister to step aside. US and British diplomats have repeatedly hinted in private that they prefer Mr Mahdi, a pro-market economist and less of an Islamist than Mr Jaafari.
The prime minister also refused to agree with some Iraqi politicians who have described the Rice-Straw visit as pressure and interference. "I do not see it as pressure," he said.
Washington and London were alarmed by the fact that Mr Jaafari won the nomination thanks to votes from MPs loyal to the radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. Mr Sadr is a strong critic of the occupation whose militias have often clashed with US forces. But the prime minister insisted he should be praised rather than condemned for bringing Mr Sadr into the political process.
More than 1,000 people have been murdered in tit-for-tat sectarian killings since a massive explosion in February destroyed a golden-domed shrine in Samarra that is especially sacred to Shias. It was partly thanks to Mr Sadr that the violence had not engulfed the whole country, Mr Jaafari said.
"It's a great success that the Sadrists are part of the political process. Can you imagine what would have happened after Samarra if the Sadrists were not part of it?" he asked. Indirectly attacking the Americans, he pointed out that three years ago he was already calling on Sadrists and Sunnis to be brought into the fold at a time when Washington was against it.
He suggested he deserved more credit than Washington and London were giving him: "I appreciate the success of any politician who can contain and include people and let them put the gun aside and use the pen instead."
The row over Mr Jaafari's personality, considered aloof and uncooperative by his critics, has overshadowed the fact that whoever becomes Iraq's prime minister, his powers will be much weaker in future.
Under rules hammered out by the major parties in the new parliament after two weeks of argument, the leader's role will be reduced. "We've agreed on rules of procedure to make it difficult, if not impossible for the prime minister to act unilaterally," Adnan Pachachi, parliament's interim speaker, told the Guardian yesterday.
"It will be more collegiate and collective, less a presidential-style government and more cabinet-style."
During his first term Mr Jaafari was criticised by other parties for setting up committees of loyalists to bypass other ministries.
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