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Iraqi prime minister won't give up seat easily

By Nic Robertson
CNN

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Iraq's interim prime minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari in an interview with CNN's Nic Robertson.

BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- It was the same room I'd waited in for Ibrahim al-Jaafari shortly before he was announced interim prime minister a little over a year ago. It was a large semicircular book-lined office set out with sumptuous gold covered armchairs and settees.

Back then he was nervously waiting to see if he'd get the top job and lead the interim government. This time he was in a much more powerful position, the incumbent, nominated by the country's powerful Shiite block, the United Iraqi Alliance, to keep the job for the next four years.

Since elections in December the country's newly elected leaders have failed to meet constitutional deadlines to form a new government. Most votes were cast along sectarian lines. Al-Jaafari's Shiite coalition landing 128 seats, the Kurds 53, Sunnis 59, the main secular coalition 25. Al-Jaafari's nomination was looking secure until Kurds, Sunnis and secularists banded together to demand he stand down.

Al-Jaafari had become the man of the moment, the man who could stymie Iraq's politics. We'd just landed an exclusive interview so we set about moving the fancy chairs to set up our makeshift studio.

As soon as he walked in I could feel the difference, he was confident, relaxed and smiling. For 15 minutes I tried to pin him down, yes or no, would he let another candidate stand for prime minister allowing the new government to form quickly. Yes, he said, if he lost the support of the Iraqi people, but by his own account his popularity has never been better. So more of a no than a yes.

His UIA block holds more of the 275 seats in the new parliament than any other single political block. His nomination, he says, plays by the rules. It's in the constitution he points out, the largest political entity nominates the prime minister. If his opponents don't go along with him, he warned, talks over forming the new government could drag well beyond the next month.

When the conversation slowed we talked about our children, mine go to school not far from where he used to live in exile in London. He told me he's been so busy he's barely seen his wife in the past year and half. Politics chose him, he said, not the other way around. It was 1959 and he was just 12 when he first got the bug. In the early 1980's, after his party -- Dawa -- was outlawed by Saddam Hussein, he found refuge in Iran before moving on to Europe. He enjoys poetry, literature and Beethoven's 9th Symphony, but that wasn't what I wanted to focus our conversation on.

In absence of agreement on the new government the last three months of political vacuum have brought some of the bloodiest sectarian conflict. The destruction of a holy Shiite shrine in Samarra a few weeks ago is a point in case. Violence is increasing, al-Jaafari concluded, although not yet civil war in his estimation. Foreign fighters, although decreasing in numbers he said were to blame, but he rebuffed U.S. claims that Iranians are crossing the Iraq border bent on terrorism.

I tried bringing the interview back to my main theme -- yes or no on standing down for permanent prime minister -- but no better results than before. He knew what I wanted and wasn't about to give in. Unlike most politicians he stayed to chat when the interview was done.

As he left the ornate office, I was happy it wouldn't be me negotiating a new cabinet with him. He seems to have grown into his job and getting him out of it is going to be tough.

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