BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) — Ahmad Chalabi, a secular Shiite once known for his ties to Washington, and Ibrahim al-Jaafari, the conservative interim vice president, will face off in a secret ballot today to determine who will be the Shiite majority’s choice for Iraqi prime minister, officials said.

The decision to hold a secret ballot came after the clergy-backed United Iraqi Alliance, which has most of the seats in the 275-member National Assembly, was unable to decide on a nominee — despite days of negotiations.

Chalabi spokesman Haidar al-Moussawi said the most powerful man in predominantly Shiite Iraq, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, met with interim Finance Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi in the southern city of Najaf and gave his backing for whatever decision the alliance makes.

“Al-Sistani assured that whoever the alliance will choose, he will agree on him,” al-Moussawi said.

Although Chalabi and his supporters claim he had the support needed for the nomination, the vote between the two 58-year-old men was anything but a sure thing.

The Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the main group making up the alliance, had tried to persuade Chalabi to quit the race, some of its senior officials said.

“We had hoped that we would agree on one person without the secret ballot, because we fear that such a vote will cause divisions inside the alliance,” said Jawad Mohammed Taqi, a senior member of the group, known as SCIRI.

He added that “Chalabi seems very confident and he believes that when we hold a secret ballot he will get the majority. I believe this is an exaggeration.”

Whoever wins the ballot, he will face interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, 59, whose party came in third after a Kurdish coalition and received 40 seats.

“My list nominated me for the prime ministership,” Allawi, a secular Shiite, said Monday.

Al-Jaafari, the president of the Islamic Dawa Party, is also Western-oriented but is considered by many to be a cleric in a business suit.

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