Global Policy Forum

Iraq's Assembly Overwhelmingly


By Robert F. Worth

New York Times
April 28, 2005

Almost three months after the January elections, Iraq's national assembly voted overwhelmingly to approve a Shiite-led cabinet today, creating the first elected government in Iraqi history. The assembly chamber burst into wild applause after a show of hands revealed that 180 of 185 legislators in attendance had voted in favor, with almost a third absent. A traditional Islamic chant of praise "God's blessings be on Muhammad and on his family" went up soon afterward.

But the divisions that delayed the government's formation for so long became apparent almost immediately after the vote. The leader of the Shiite political alliance that dominates the assembly and the cabinet, Abdul Aziz al Hakim, delivered a warlike speech that hinted at purges to come in the government's security forces. A Sunni Arab assembly member later stood up to angrily accuse the Shiites of dividing the country, and even said one member had threatened to gather evidence that would send him to the gallows. "This is not a national government, it is a government of the winners," said the Sunni member, Meshaan al Juburi. "I am here to say that the Sunni Arab members have been marginalized, and the Sunni Arab political forces should be aware of that."

Lingering tensions were visible even in the list of cabinet members, which remains incomplete. Four important positions the defense, oil, electricity, and human rights ministries - were given to placeholders, because the assembly's political factions have yet to agree on candidates. Under pressure from the White House as well as fellow Iraqis, the members agreed to submit the incomplete list rather than delay it any further. Two slots for deputy prime ministers have also not been filled. Ibrahim Jaafari, the new Shiite prime minister, said he expected to fill those positions in less than a week.

Despite the gaps, the assembly's vote placed Dr. Jaafari at the head of a multi-ethnic cabinet that will include 17 Shiites, 8 Kurds, 6 Sunni Arabs, 1 Christian, and at least 6 women. Iraq's Kurdish president, Jalal Talabani, and his two deputies approved the cabinet list late Wednesday night, allowing it to proceed to the assembly vote. When it assumes power early next week, the new government will face an extraordinary array of challenges, from guiding the effort to write a new constitution to rebuilding Iraq's shattered cities to fighting an undiminished insurgency.

Dr. Jaafari and his aides will also need to assert firm control over the provincial governments, which had begun to drift into chaos in recent weeks as Iraq's post-election political stalemate continued. Last weekend, Bush administration officials warned Shiite and Kurdish leaders that the political vacuum appeared to be fueling the insurgency. The violence continued today, as a high-ranking police official and a government official were shot to death by gunmen while driving to work in Baghdad. On Wednesday, a member of the national assembly was assassinated in her Baghdad home, in a reminder that members of Iraq's new government are highly vulnerable.

At the head of the new cabinet stand Dr. Jaafari and his deputies: Ahmad Chalabi, a Shiite, and Roz Nori Shawees, a Kurd. Two additional deputies, allocated to a Turkman and a Sunni Arab, will be announced within the week, Dr. Jaafari said. Mr. Chalabi, a former Pentagon favorite who helped make the case for invading Iraq, may be the most controversial figure in the new Iraqi administration. He is widely disliked in Iraq, particularly among Sunnis, who have been angered by his campaign to oust former Baathists from government.

His new perch could help him carry out that agenda, particularly with an ally as the new head of Iraq's Interior Ministry, Bayan Salagh, who belongs to a Shiite political party that shares Dr. Chalabi's anti-Baathist agenda. Many of Iraq's critical anti-terrorist battalions are based in the Interior Ministry, and members of Mr. Salagh's party have sworn to purge some of the former Baathists who are among the top commanders there.

Dr. Chalabi has also been named as temporary head of the oil ministry until a full-time minister can be found. That appointment could raise alarms in light of Dr. Chalabi's conviction in Jordan on charges that he embezzled $30 million from a Jordanian bank.

The new cabinet includes several holdovers from the outgoing government of Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, including Hoshyar Zebari, a Kurd, who will stay on as foreign minister. Barham Saleh, a Kurd who served as Dr. Allawi's deputy, will be planning minister in the new government. Nasreen Barwari, the Harvard-educated public works minister, will retain her position, and Dr. Sami al Mudhafar, who also served in Dr. Allawi's cabinet, will be the new higher education minister.

One notable absence in the cabinet will be Dr. Allawi's party, which took 40 seats in the national assembly. Dr. Allawi and his cohorts had demanded four cabinet ministries and a deputy prime minister's post, and when Shiite leaders balked, Dr. Allawi chose to remain in the parliamentary opposition.

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