Global Policy Forum

A New Iraqi Government Takes Office


By Megan K. Stack & Borzou Daragahi

Los Angeles Times
May 21, 2006

The inauguration ends a five-month deadlock. But the first full-term Cabinet since Hussein is incomplete and may be too diverse to prevail.

Iraq's battling communities came together Saturday to approve their first full-term government since the fall of Saddam Hussein, placing a nation fractured from three years of war into the hands of a diverse but potentially weak Cabinet. In a stuffy chamber tucked deep inside rings of blast walls, barbed wire and bomb-sniffing dogs, parliament voted in favor of a 36-member Cabinet cobbled together by new Prime Minister Nouri Maliki. In the heart of the Green Zone, far from the reach of ordinary Iraqis, lawmakers raised their hands to vet each member.

The prime minister has yet to quell a swelling crisis over management of Iraq's security services. In the end, staring down a Monday deadline to appoint a Cabinet, Maliki delayed decisions on the key posts of the Interior, Defense and National Security ministries. To buy time and push the government through parliament, he nominated temporary fill-ins — himself as interior minister and his deputies, Barham Salih, a Kurd, and Salam Zikam Ali Zubaie, a Sunni Arab, for the National Security and Defense posts, respectively.

Although it was punctuated by a walkout by a handful of angry Sunni lawmakers, the inauguration shattered the deadlock that had paralyzed Iraqi governance since December. "I stand solemnly before the souls of our martyrs and the precious blood offered by Iraqis, and seek inspiration from our people's steadfastness, sacrifices and pains, the imprisonment, torture, killing and terrorism they've faced," Maliki told the Council of Representatives, the Iraqi parliament. "Just as we did away with the tyrant [Hussein] and the days of oppression and despotism, we will do away with terrorism and sabotage."

But Maliki, a Shiite Muslim hard-liner, faces a perilous obstacle course. He has a Cabinet so wide-ranging that it could collapse, a 34-point program aimed at satisfying each faction, and a disillusioned, weary nation to govern. The Cabinet, which includes four women, has 19 Shiites, eight Sunni Arabs, eight Kurds and one Christian. Aside from the Interior, Defense and National Security portfolios, key posts include that of oil minister, held by Hussein Shahristani, a Shiite; foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari, a Kurd; justice minister, Hashim Abdul-Rahman Shibli, a Sunni Arab; finance minister, Bayan Jabr, a Shiite; and trade minister, Abed Falah Sudani, also a Shiite.

"This government won't be a panacea for solving all problems, but it's a beginning," Zebari said. "We wanted to present the whole Cabinet; it would have been better." President Bush praised the new government, saying it "reflects Iraq's diversity and opens a new chapter in that country's history…. As Iraq's leaders work together to chart the future of their nation, bringing freedom and security to the Iraqi people, they make the world a safer place for all of us."

Safe streets and restored peace are the overwhelming desire of the Iraqi people, and a priority for any government that hopes to win public confidence. Not only have the security ministries been struggling in the face of daily killings, but some police units have been accused of operating as Shiite death squads. Violence continued to rage outside the Green Zone on Saturday as the gears of government ground on. At least 20 people were killed when a homemade bomb exploded in Sadr City, the mainly Shiite slum in northeastern Baghdad. Fifteen corpses were found in the capital, all with wrists bound and bearing signs of torture, an Interior Ministry source said. And in Yousifiya, about 10 miles south, insurgents planted explosives on an oil pipeline, setting off a massive blaze.

The steady carnage poses a challenge to the Bush administration too: Untainted, effective security services are essential to U.S. hopes of fading from Iraq's streets by reducing the numbers of troops and patrols. U.S. officials say their best hope is a representative government. Bloodshed will slow, they say, if all Iraqis feel included. "I'm not here to signal that just because the government has formed, the national unity government, that events will improve dramatically," U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad told reporters. "I believe Iraq … is put on the right path. Now all communities are stakeholders with regard to the new Iraq."

Optimistic U.S. officials say Maliki may be able to garner wide popular support if he zeroes in on solving two or three festering problems, such as security woes and electricity shortages that continue to leave many Iraqis confined in hot darkness. Although the government of interim Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari had made security a priority, it did not enjoy the wide cross-sectarian support Maliki will have, a U.S. official said. "I think it can be politically strong," said a Western official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "It's going to enjoy at least at the start much greater political support across the spectrum of Iraqi communities. If it performs well, it will have a chance to make that support not only broad but deep."

On the surface, the Cabinet of Shiites, Sunni Arabs and Kurds unveiled Saturday appears to be just the body to appease a torn nation. Urbanites keen for a secular state sit alongside religious Iraqis in search of Islamic rule; advocates of loose federalism vie against leaders demanding a strong central government. But analysts contend that a government made up of squabbling factions forced together by political expediency and Western pressure is prone to inherent weakness. Wary of giving too much power to any one interest, the Iraqi system is deliberately hamstrung, they say.

It's no accident that Maliki is the second Islamic Dawa Party leader to rise to the prime minister's post, many here argue. Dawa is the only major Shiite party without an armed wing and is thus feared by no one. "All parties would like to keep the center weak, each with its own justification," said Hossein Athad Sukeini, a law professor at Basra University. "Kurds don't want a repeat of the massacres of the 1980s," he said. "Shiites don't want mass graves and the destruction of the shrines. And the Sunnis, even though they say they want a strong state, don't want a strong state with Shiites as the majority."

In the so-called national unity government, every faction is represented, and therefore every interest must be sated. That means each policy decision is a potential pitfall for a prime minister constitutionally hemmed in by a president as well as a Cabinet whose approval, by a two-thirds majority, is required for any major decisions on security issues. The battle for the security ministries, which will continue this week, probably will be fierce. Maliki has pledged to find ministers who are not overly loyal to their sects or political parties. "The people in these positions must not receive orders from any political parties," Maliki said Saturday.

But there is deep disagreement over who might fit the bill. Political factions quarreled long into the night Friday, with Sunnis pushing for more seats in the Cabinet. The jockeying wore on into morning, postponing the parliamentary session for more than two hours as last-minute deals were debated. The ceremony got off to a contentious start when more than 10 Sunni lawmakers stalked out of parliament to protest the number of seats they'd been given. The walkout was led by Saleh Mutlak, who accused negotiators of trying to cajole him into changing his political views in exchange for a larger piece of the government.

"This is not the democracy we were promised, this is not the freedom we were promised!" he told parliament in a fiery speech delivered in a shout as he rose from his chair. "They can't demand I change my principles and ideas for three ministries — this is not the way it works!" Fellow lawmaker Mithal Alusi, a secular Sunni, tried to force the microphone out of Mutlak's hands, saying, "This is not the place for political statements." Mutlak turned on his heel and walked out. Most of the Sunnis stayed in their seats, however, ignoring Mutlak's pleas to join him.

If early signs of Sunni Arab dissatisfaction turn into all-out opposition, many worry that the government could further inflame the largely Sunni-led insurgency. But other officials argued that the bickering was a feature of nation-building. "We should expect this sort of thing to happen. This is a democracy," Jabr said. "This is the new Iraq."

Times staff writers Solomon Moore, James Rainey, Saif Rasheed, Suhail Ahmad and Raheem Salman contributed to this report.

Iraq's New Cabinet

During a televised session, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki and 36 Cabinet ministers were sworn into office.

Barham Salih: Deputy prime minister; Kurd
Salam Zikam Ali Zubaie: Deputy prime minister; Sunni Arab

Cabinet Ministers

Men: 32
Women: 4

Religious, sectarian and ethnic background:

Shiite: 19
Sunni Arab: 8
Kurd: 8
Christian: 1

Source: Associated Press

More Information on Iraq
More Information on Iraq's Government
More Information on Sectarianism


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