Is This Saddam's Successor?

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Adnan Pachachi is the go-to man in Iraqi politics. As the country's Governing Council argued over the constitution earlier this month, Pachachi's phone was ringing off the hook. At one stage, Lakhdar Brahimi, special envoy to Iraq for U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, called to ask for a copy of the charter. "I will talk to Kofi," Pachachi assured him. "I will send Kofi a copy of the document."

The signing of the constitution last week gave Iraq a dramatic push toward a democratic future. While the haggling revealed splits in the council that could still haunt Iraqi politics, the signing marks an impressive accomplishment for the council and, particularly, Pachachi. The former diplomat, 81, who returned to Iraq from exile last year, oversaw the writing of the document, whose core is a U.S.-style bill of rights. Refined during many discussions in the sprawling house that Pachachi rents in Baghdad, the constitution enshrines rights Iraqis never dreamed of: freedom of speech and political organization, a ban on torture, equality of gender and religion. Says Pachachi: "I like to think this is my legacy."

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It may also be the key to his future. Pachachi is a credible candidate to become Iraq's President after the U.S. hands over power on June 30. Elections are set for December or January; he is also talked about as a possible transitional leader until then. Pachachi is admired for his diplomatic cool. "He's respected by everyone," says a Kurdish official who has witnessed Pachachi in action in recent weeks.

Pachachi has helped keep Iraq's transition on track. When the U.N.'s Baghdad headquarters was bombed last August, resulting in 23 deaths, he flew to Geneva to meet Annan — an old friend — and U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell. He urged them to stay focused on winding down the U.S. occupation and giving Iraq a sovereign government. When multiple suicide attacks killed more than 180 in Baghdad and Karbala earlier this month, Pachachi worked the phones, summoning council members of all ethnic groups to a news conference to appeal for unity.

Top-drawer schmoozing comes easily to Pachachi, who was weaned on politics. His father was a Prime Minister in the late 1940s, well before Saddam Hussein came to power. And Pachachi married the daughter of another former Iraqi Premier, Ali Jawdat. The couple met when he was 14 and married before he began studying for his doctorate at Georgetown University. Pachachi became a diplomat, serving as Iraq's ambassador to the U.N. in the 1960s and then as Foreign Minister. Forced into exile when he refused to join the Baath Party, he became an adviser to the United Arab Emirates, where he slowly developed his relatively liberal ideology.

To be sure, Pachachi is no shoo-in for the presidency. He is a Sunni in a largely Shi'ite country. His passions — attending Bach festivals in Europe and listening to Don Giovanni at home — are unusual among Iraqis. And given that half the country is under 20, Iraqis might wonder whether the tall man with a silver forelock is up to the job. Pachachi's aides argue that his age is an asset, especially after the Saddam era. "He's 81, so he's obviously not going to become a dictator," says Fareed Yasseen, an Iraqi-American consultant who serves as Pachachi's senior aide. And while U.S. officials selected him for the council, some Iraqis draw a distinction with another Washington favorite, Ahmad Chalabi. Chalabi returned to Iraq last year with a U.S. special-forces escort; Pachachi cold-shouldered the American military and flew into Baghdad alone a month after the city fell.

Pachachi is coy about his future. "Isn't it premature to talk about who is going to be President?" he asks. But with the occupation ending in less than four months, it's not too soon to ponder Saddam's successor.