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Iraq Transition

Saddam sees new president's election

Iraqi transitional assembly elects Kurdish leader

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Kurdish leader appointed as president.

Jalal Talabani named transitional Iraqi president.

Talabani pledges to run the government smoothly.
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BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- Iraq's new transitional assembly took an expected but historic step Wednesday, electing Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani as the nation's president -- a symbol of the new Kurdish clout in the largely Arab nation.

Former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein watched from his jail cell as the longtime leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan assumed the title Saddam held before he was ousted by a U.S.-led invasion in 2003.

The vote was largely a formality and the role largely ceremonial, but the selection of a Kurdish president was a poignant, symbolic moment for a country where Kurds were persecuted under Saddam's Sunni Arab regime.

In a televised session, Talabani addressed the 275-member body, striking themes of unity among the country's different ethnicities and religions.

"I will carry out my duties as head of the presidential council, and I will acknowledge your trust and trust of the Iraqi people, who have freely elected you in our free Iraq," Talabani told the body.

Saddam was one of 12 "high-value detainees" held by the U.S. military who watched video of the session, said Bakhtiar Amin, interim minister of human rights.

Amin said Saddam watched the footage alone in his cell; the other 11 were given the option of watching the video afterward. They chose to watch, Amin said, and all did so through to the end.

"I imagine that he was very upset, and he realized his era of ruling Iraq has come to an end, and there's no possible return to power for him or his thugs," Amin said.

Amin said his ministry would provide a more detailed report on the viewing Thursday, perhaps with comments from the former officials.

"They have seen an election, and the parliament elected a president, and it's not like before where the transfer of power was done through the shedding of blood, military coups and invasions," he said.

Amin, who is a Kurd, said the election was "a great day for Iraqis and particularly a great day for the Kurds."

In Washington, President Bush called the assembly's actions "a momentous step forward in Iraq's transition to democracy."

"We look forward to working with this new government and we congratulate all Iraqis on this historic day," Bush said in a written statement.

White House press secretary Scott McClellan said Bush had telephoned Talabani to offer congratulations and support.

Stressing democracy

Talabani, in what was essentially an inaugural address, paid tribute to the Kurds in the northern part of the country and the Shiites in the south who died fighting the Saddam regime.

Talabani envisioned reaching "national independence" for Iraq and "the circumstances in which we will no longer need the support and help of the multinational forces."

"This will be achieved by fully building our Iraq security forces. All of this will lead Iraq to its normal position in the Arabic and Islamic world," he said.

He stressed democracy and national unity, urged Iraq's neighbors to do more to thwart the insurgency, and said he favored laws with a secular underpinning but that respected Iraq's Islamic identity.

Talabani said Iraq's experiment in democracy could have an impact beyond its borders, particularly mentioning the Palestinian issue.

Along with Talabani, two deputy presidents were chosen by the assembly: Shiite Arab Adel Abdul Mahdi, a member of the United Iraqi Alliance who served as interim finance minister, and Sunni Arab Sheikh Ghazi al-Yawar, who served as the previous interim president.

They are expected to be sworn in Thursday.

The first duty of the three, who comprise what is called the presidency council, is to name a prime minister and a Cabinet, a choice that would have to be approved by the transitional assembly.

Shiite leader Ibrahim al-Jaafari is expected to become prime minister on Thursday.

Cabinet appointments have been allocated after weeks of hard political bargaining. Although many of the positions have been decided, it is not known who is envisioned for some key positions, including the chiefs of the oil and defense ministries.

The main goal of the transitional government is to write a permanent constitution that will be put to the voters in a referendum later this year. If and when that is approved, a permanent government will be elected.

Foe of Saddam

Talabani's life reflects the history of the Iraqi opposition forces.

His Peshmerga mountain fighters undertook a bitter campaign against Saddam's forces in the 1970s and 1980s.

Thousands of Kurds were killed in those years, many in a poison gas attack in 1988 in the town of Halabja.

After the 1991 Persian Gulf war, Talabani helped lead a full-scale uprising against Saddam.

When Iraq's army retaliated, the Kurds fled over the borders to Iran or Turkey. Then their fortunes changed for the better in Iraq as an autonomous Kurdish enclave evolved in the north.

The self-rule in the U.S.-backed enclave has given the Kurds an economic edge.

Talabani and another Kurdish leader, Masoud Barzani of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, had been rivals, but they have formed a united front among Kurds, who want to retain autonomy in the new Iraq.

Both the Kurdistan Alliance and the Shiite-led United Iraqi Alliance attracted the most votes in the January 30 transitional assembly elections.

The Sunni Arabs largely stayed away from those polls, which were dominated by the Shiite Arabs. The Shiites represent an estimated 60 percent of the population and were also persecuted under Saddam.

Other developments

  • Even as the political process inched forward, the violence continued this week with at least four U.S. soldiers, an Iraqi soldier, an Iraqi civilian and eight insurgents killed in separate incidents. The number of American dead in the Iraq war stands at 1,542. (Full story)
  • U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Tuesday announced the selection of Zalmay Khalilzad to become ambassador to Iraq. Khalilzad is U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan. If confirmed by the Senate, he would replace John Negroponte, who has been nominated to be national director of intelligence. (Full story)
  • CNN's Nic Robertson, Kevin Flower, Aneesh Raman and Enes Dulami contributed to this report.

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