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Naming of Iraq PM draws US silence, UN surprise

Baghdad, May 28 (Reuters): Iyad Allawi, a former member of Saddam Hussein’s Baath party who then worked with the CIA to topple him, was chosen as Prime Minister of Iraq today.

Charged with taking over from the US occupation authority on June 30 and leading his country to its first free elections next year, his nomination emerged from a unanimous consensus at a meeting of the 25 US appointees on Iraq’s governing council.

UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, whom Washington asked to help shape a new Iraqi government, welcomed the choice of the British-educated, Shia neurologist through a spokesman.

It was unclear how far US officials or Brahimi influenced the choice of a long-time exile known to few Iraqis and whom people in Baghdad said was an outsider they could not trust.

Brahimi and Iraq’s US governor Paul Bremer endorsed the nomination, governing council member Mahmoud Othman said. “We had a meeting with Bremer and Brahimi and they both agreed and congratulated him and were happy about it,” Othman said.

However, UN officials said today that Brahimi “respects” the choice of Iyad Allawi.

But the officials hinted that Allawi’s selection by the council had come as a surprise to Brahimi, although they said Allawi was “high on his list” of choices. They said Brahimi had been present at the meeting at which the decision was made.

US secretary of state Colin Powell said only that he was waiting to hear from Brahimi and made no mention of Allawi, who survived an assassination bid by Iraqi agents in London in 1978.

A secular Muslim from Iraq’s long-oppressed majority Shia community, Allawi will be joined on the 30-member team by Sunnis, Kurds and representatives of Iraq’s other minorities.

Brahimi is expected to announce a Sunni President, two vice-presidents and 26 cabinet ministers over the next few days.

“Mr Brahimi welcomes the decision to nominate Mr Allawi,” said Brahimi’s spokesman Ahmad Fawzi, adding that the two would meet soon to discuss candidates for remaining government posts.

Negotiations are going on in the UN Security Council over how much sovereign power the interim government will have. Some Iraqi leaders and countries like France and Russia are pushing to amend a US-and British-sponsored resolution to strengthen the government’s powers.

The main challenge Allawi faces will be holding elections, due in January under the US proposal. Iraq is riven with religious and ethnic tensions, has no tradition of democracy and is beset by violence from armed militias and urban guerrillas.

“I know nothing about him. He lived abroad as an exile. We need someone who lived here who can pull Iraq out of a crisis,” said a Baghdad hotel manager, complaining of daily violence.

“Iraq is the same as it was in the time of Saddam Hussein except now I am afraid of militiamen so I can’t say my name.”

Two Japanese journalists were killed in an attack on their car yesterday at a well-known danger spot south of Baghdad, said doctors who displayed two incinerated bodies. A top Iraqi politician survived an attack in the same area on the same day.

Allawi is related to Ahmad Chalabi, the former Pentagon favourite now out of favour who was once seen as Washington’s first choice to lead Iraq. The two are not regarded as close. Allawi’s cousin Ali Allawi is the present defence minister.

Allawi, born in 1945, is also a wealthy businessman. Having spent many years abroad he turned against Saddam. In 1990 he formed the Iraqi National Accord, a party backed by the CIA and British intelligence and including many disillusioned former Baathists.

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