By Horace Helps
KINGSTON (Reuters) - Jamaican Prime Minister Bruce Golding said Sunday that fallout from his handling of a U.S. request for the extradition of a notorious gang leader from his own constituency was a key factor behind his decision to step down.
"The entire episode has affected me deeply and the perceptions that are held by some people have not been dispelled," Golding said in an address to the nation.
It was the first time since his unexpected announcement on September 25 that he was stepping down that the 63-year-old Golding gave any specific reason for the move that has stirred growing uncertainty in the debt-strapped Caribbean island-state.
Golding's government stalled for months after it received a request in 2009 for the extradition of Christopher "Dudus" Coke, who was wanted on drug-trafficking and running charges in New York.
Reluctant to act on the request, Jamaican authorities were even alleged to have sought out the services of U.S.-based law firm Manatt, Phelps & Phillips to lobby on its behalf in extradition matters, including the Coke case.
"Questions about the role I played in the Coke/Manatt matter have remained a source of concern in the minds of many people," Golding said in his address.
He did not elaborate, but reiterated his previous claims that information about Coke gathered by U.S. authorities through wiretaps had been obtained illegally.
"It was never about Coke's guilt or innocence. It was about a breach of our constitution and had it been a person other than Coke it perhaps would never have become the cause celebre that it turned out to be," he said.
In the rough-and-tumble world of Jamaica's so-called "garrison politics," both main parties have long been known for their unsavory alliances with gang leaders like Coke, who ruled the streets of Golding's own West Kingston constituency like his personal fiefdom.
But Golding tacitly admitted that his handling of what some describe the "Coke catastrophe" had tarnished his image nationally.
It may also have hurt him politically in his own home district where the popular drug "don" Coke held sway until last year.
When the government finally bowed to U.S. pressure to move against Coke in May 2010, 76 people were killed in gunbattles pitting the police and military against Coke loyalists holed up in the Tivoli Gardens district of the capital.
Golding is to step down after the ruling Jamaica Labor Party picks a new leader and prime minister at a general council meeting on November 19.
"There are other considerations that led to my decision," he said in his speech, after outlining the political price of the Coke affair. "It is time for my generation to make way for younger people," he said.
"In the next two months I will be 64. I feel it is time for me and people like me to make way and allow a new crop of leaders to step forward and unleash their energies and creativity."
(Editing by Tom Brown and by Jackie Frank)