BAGHDAD, Iraq — A roadside bomb explosion wounded five people in a mostly Sunni Arab neighborhood of Baghdad on Sunday, a day after the formation of the country’s new national unity government.
The 8 a.m. blast missed its target — a police patrol — but wounded five civilians, including three in a nearby car, in Sadiyah, southwestern Baghdad, said police Capt. Jamil Hussein.
On Saturday, parliament inaugurated Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s new government, which hopes to improve the Iraq’s military and police forces, win the battle against insurgent groups and militias, reduce sectarian violence and restore stability to Iraq.
But political infighting left three important posts in the Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish Cabinet temporarily filled — the very ones responsible for managing Iraq’s army, police forces and national security.
Al-Maliki said he is determined to soon find independent, nonsectarian officials to fill those three portfolios, and his new Cabinet was scheduled to meet in Baghdad later Sunday.
PM vows ‘maximum force’ on terrorists
Earlier on Sunday al-Maliki vowed to use “maximum force against terrorism,” as bombs exploded in Baghdad during the first meeting of his national unity government.
A suicide bomber killed at least 12 people and injured 14 after detonating his explosive vest inside a downtown Baghdad restaurant popular with police officers, police said.
The dead included three police officers, said Police Col. Abbas Mohammed. The explosion occurred at 1:20 p.m. during the crowded lunch hour.
And a car bomb killed three people and wounded 21 more in Baghdad’s western mainly Shiite Shula district. The same day, a roadside bomb on the eastern bank of the Tigris killed three people and wounded 24 in a blast apparently targeting Iraqi police in a busy commercial street.
The violence was a fresh reminder of the huge task al-Maliki faces in reining in bloodshed that has pushed Iraq to the brink of civil war.
The tough-talking Shiite Islamist, briefing reporters after the cabinet meeting, said however that his government would hold out the offer of dialogue to those prepared to renounce violence. “We will use maximum force against terrorism, but we also need a national initiative,” he said.
An Arab League national reconciliation meeting is due to take place next month in Baghdad.
Bush hails new government
The inauguration of Iraq’s new government marks a new era in relations with the country that the U.S. has occupied for more than three years, President Bush said Sunday in Washington.
“The formation of a unity government in Iraq is a new day for the millions of Iraqis who want to live in peace,” Bush said. “And the formation of the unity government in Iraq begins a new chapter in our relationship with Iraq.”
Bush briefly spoke to reporters from the White House with his wife, Laura, at his side, to highlight the political development without mentioning the violence that still rages in Iraq.
Al-Maliki must deal with Iraqis beset by fear of communal violence and aching poverty and sponsors in Washington eager for an acceptable exit for U.S. troops.
Al-Maliki has cobbled together a cabinet of Shiites, minority Sunni Arabs and Kurds in hopes that a broad-based coalition will ease sectarian violence and consolidate a U.S.-piloted transition to democracy from the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein.
But disputes over who would lead the key interior and defense ministries — in charge of police and the army — meant those two sensitive post would be left vacant for now.
Al-Maliki said he hoped to fill the posts in the next two to three days.
U.S. ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, a key power broker behind the scenes in Baghdad, said the formation of the government, with crucial involvement from Saddam’s once dominant fellow Sunnis, brought 130,000 American troops closer to going home.
“I believe that, with the political changes taking place — the emphasis on unity and reconciliation, with effective ministers ... — that conditions are likely to move in the right direction and that would allow adjustment in terms of the size, composition and mission of our forces,” he said.
U.S. ambassador: No honeymoon
Khalilzad said Sunday that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki will have no grace period and will be immediately challenged by al-Qaida and other terrorists.
In an interview with the Associated Press one day after the seating of the new leadership, Khalilzad outlined the immediate challenges facing the government of national unity and said the next six months will be “truly critical.”
Al-Maliki was meeting Sunday with the security chiefs of the police and military to underline his immediate priorities, Khalilzad said.
The government “will be faced immediately with challenges because the terrorists are not going to go away, they are going to persist in the effort to promote sectarian conflict,” Khalilzad said. “They want Iraq to fail, but Iraq in itself is not important for them. Iraq is one theater in a global war that they want to provoke, a war of civilization.”
In one of al-Maliki’s first acts, the ambassador said, he had approved a plan for “infrastructure security” and is planning to soon review a strategy for security in Baghdad.
Al-Maliki, in outlining his program to parliament, said his government aimed to complete rebuilding Iraq’s armed forces with “an objective timetable for ... the end of the tasks of the multinational forces and their return to their countries.”
Japanese media reported that 600 Japanese troops in southern Iraq may start leaving next month. Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Aso welcomed the new government and said Japan would continue to support Iraq’s efforts to build a new nation.
Mixed reaction on street
Many Iraqis were divided on whether their new government will be able to curtail sectarian violence.
“We have been waiting for a genuine change in Iraqi life since the fall of Saddam’s regime in 2003, but the security ... has deteriorated from worse to worst,” said Zakyaa Nasir, 52, in the southern city of Amarah. Her husband was an Iraqi soldier killed during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s.
Issam al-Rawi, the head of the University Professors Association in Baghdad, said a government of Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish representatives will succeed only if Iraqis can set aside sectarian and ethnic divisions to stand together under a national identity.
“We have some reservations,” al-Rawi said. “The ministers have to give up their sectarian and factional and racial affiliations and be loyal only to their country.”
For one, ‘a real beginning’
Fuad Ali Kadom, 42, a power station engineer in Baghdad, said the new government was “a real beginning of a new Iraq.”
“We don’t care for names as much as we care for the services they will offer,” he said. Iraq’s infrastructure remains dilapidated and many Iraqis don’t have electricity as the summer heat approaches.
One of the new government’s programs calls for the restoration of Iraqi infrastructure, including a program detailing an entire reconstruction plan for the country.
“The forming of a new government is a cheerful day,” said Sawsan Yalman, 31, a Turkoman student. “But the government has to solve essential problems, especially the security problem and fighting terrorist and armed groups.”
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.