UN fury over Bush attempts to install PM

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The Independent Online

The Bush administration was accused yesterday of undermining the work of the UN envoy attempting to put together an interim Iraqi government, by suggesting that a respected nuclear scientist was tipped to be prime minister.

The Bush administration was accused yesterday of undermining the work of the UN envoy attempting to put together an interim Iraqi government, by suggesting that a respected nuclear scientist was tipped to be prime minister.

The spokesman for Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN envoy in Baghdad, reacted with fury after US officials were quoted as saying that Hussain Shahristani had emerged as the leading candidate. Mr Shahristani, a Shia, spent almost a decade in prison under Saddam Hussein after refusing to build a nuclear weapon, but he escaped into exile in 1991.

"There is no final list yet, we are still working on it," said the spokesman, Ahmad Fawzi, who denied that Mr Shahristani was the leading contender for the post. "Now his life could be in danger," he added, now that Mr Shahristani's name had been leaked. "This is a dangerous city." In New York, a UN spokesman Fred Eckhard said the report in yesterday's Washington Post was "pure speculation which is not helpful to the process".

Mr Brahimi is working against the clock to announce a government of 30 people by next Monday, with the delicate task of striking a viable balance among all the Iraqi factions. "He is getting into the endgame of this, but a number of names are still in play for the top jobs," said an official. While the lower level positions have been agreed, Mr Brahimi's private consultations have intensified as he attempts to nail down Iraqi approval for the positions of president, prime minister, and two vice-presidents.

UN and British officials dismissed suggestions that the Americans had a sinister motive in putting out Mr Shahristani's name, and said that the information was simply out of date. Asked whether the Americans might have been trying to "bounce" Mr Shahristani into the post, a senior British official replied that "it was just a leak".

Mr Shahristani, who had the support of the British Government as he had worked as a visiting professor in Britain, was apparently in the frame for the position of prime minister. But his candidacy ran into difficulties when Mr Brahimi held further consultations with a range of Iraqis, including the influential Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini Sistani. The formation of the Iraqi government is a crucial step towards the adoption of a UN resolution which is to officially end the occupation of Iraq, transfer political sovereignty to the Iraqis and map out the future towards an elected government.

The Anglo-American resolution was presented to the UN Security Council on Monday, but ran into immediate difficulties from France, Germany and Russia which are insisting on "real sovereignty" for the Iraqi interim government which is to take power on 1 July.

Among other contenders for the top posts is Adnan Pachachi, a Sunni who served as foreign minister in the 1960s and who is being touted as a possible president. Ibrahim Jaaferi, a potential vice-president, and Mr Pachachi are two of the only members of the current US-appointed Governing Council to command the respect of ordinary Iraqis.

Dr Jaaferi is one of the leaders of the Dawa party, a Shia faction that was opposed to Baathist rule and banned under the Saddam regime. Unusually, the Shia Dr Jaaferi is respected by Sunnis. Some Sunnis even said yesterday that if there were an election, they would vote for him.

By contrast, the name suggested to fill the other of the two vice-presidencies, Jalal Talabani, is one that will not please Iraq's Arabs, both Sunni and Shia. Mr Talabani's past, leading a Kurdish rebellion against Arab rule, and the fact that he was seen as close to Iran during the Iran-Iraq war, would make him a particularly unpopular choice. He is one of the two Kurdish leaders who control the Kurdish north of Iraq.

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