Ahmad Chalabi, a maverick secular Shiite and one-time Pentagon favourite, told reporters he pulled out to “preserve the unity of the alliance”.

But observers say pressure from within the ranks of the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA), the country’s most powerful Shiite religious coalition, forced him out.

With his departure, Mr Jaafari was chosen by the UIA as their candidate for the post and now has only rival – incumbent interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi.

The UIA swept to power in last month’s poll, winning 48 percent of the vote and securing 140 seats in the 275-member national assembly.

Mr Jaafari immediately said that as prime minister he make the restoration of security his priority, pointing the finger at Iraq’s neighbours.

“We will start with security because it’s a problem that gives no respite to citizens,” he said, adding “interference by neighbouring countries in the realm of security must be resolved.”

Both Iran and Syria have been accused of involvement in Iraq’s bloody insurgency, charges the two countries strenuously deny.

Mr Jaafari, a 58-year-old family doctor, is widely popular support among Iraq’s Shiite majority.

His conservative views, links with Iran and presumed support for a more Islamic state have sparked concern in the past.

As UIA candidate he also has the backing of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Iraq’s most influential religious leader.

Even though the UIA is expected to successfully impose its candidate for the post of prime minister, his ascension is not yet a done deal.

He firstly has to be approved by a coalition that likely will include the Kurds, and then he must be approved by a majority of the newly elected National Assembly.

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