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Since returning to Iraq after the U.S. invasion, al-Jaafari has worked to shore up his secularist credentials. "He may head a Shi'ite party, but he has never sounded like a Shi'ite politician," says Ammar Zain Alabideen, spokesman for the Iraqi Islamic Party, the leading Sunni political group. Dawa retains ties to the Iranian government, but al-Jaafari says that won't jaundice the way he views Washington. "The U.S. liberated Iraq from Saddam, and for that we will forever be grateful," he told TIME.
The biggest challenge facing al-Jaafari and the newly elected 275-member National Assembly will be proving they can run Iraq on their own. Al-Jaafari says he hopes to form a national-unity government, with a rainbow cabinet of all major parties, including Sunnis, most of whom boycotted the Jan. 30 election. "This is not a time to be excluding anybody," he says. Indeed, al-Jaafari will need all the help he can get. --By Aparisim Ghosh/Baghdad. With reporting by Timothy J. Burger/Washington