Prime minister-designate Jawad al-Maliki began on Sunday the tough task of assembling a Cabinet out of Iraq’s Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish parties.
Al-Maliki, a Shiite, has 30 days to do it, but the parties are under enormous pressure — from Americans and even Shiite religious leaders — to move quickly without the often intractable haggling over ministries.
The United States is hoping the new government will unify Iraq’s bitterly divided factions behind a program aimed at reining in both the Sunni-led insurgency and the Shiite-Sunni killings that escalated during months without a stable government.
U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, a key player in torturous political negotiations since Iraq’s Dec. 15 elections, repeated his call for the quick creation of a Cabinet of “competent” ministers — implying those chosen for their skills and not sectarian or political ties.
Khalilzad said the next government must decommission sectarian militias and integrate them into the national armed forces, warning that the armed groups represent the “infrastructure for civil war.”
Bid to end deadlock
Al-Maliki promised Saturday to swiftly finish building a unity government after parliament elected a top national leadership, ending months of political deadlock as the nation spiraled into chaos.
President Bush on Sunday called Iraq’s top leaders to congratulate them on breaking the political impasse.
Bush said he told President Jalal Talabani, al-Maliki and parliament Speaker Mahmoud al-Mashhadani that they have a duty to improve the lives of Iraqis, defeat the insurgency and unite the country.
“They have awesome responsibilities to their people,” Bush told military families in the mess hall at the Marine Corps Air Ground Center.
The Iraqi leaders “expressed their deep appreciation for the United States of America and our soldiers,” Bush said as he told the audience about three calls he had made early Sunday.
“Yesterday was an important day, but I recognize that we still have more work to do,” Bush said. “Democracy in Iraq will be a major blow to the terrorists who want to do us harm.”
After repeated delays, parliament convened Saturday in the heavily guarded Green Zone and elected a president, two vice presidents, a parliament speaker and two deputies.
Talabani, a Kurd who won a second term, named al-Maliki as prime minister-designate, a formality after the dominant Shiite bloc replaced outgoing Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari. Sunnis and Kurds refused to accept al-Jaafari.
Bush hails political compromise
Bush said it would be up to the new leadership in Iraq to shoulder the burden for securing the country, but he did not commit to a drawdown of American forces that now are playing the lead role.
“There’s going to be more tough fighting ahead in Iraq and there’ll be more days of sacrifice and struggle,” Bush said. “Yet, the enemies of freedom have suffered a real blow today, and we’ve taken a great stride on the march to victory.
“This historic achievement by determined Iraqis will make America more secure,” he said.
The administration’s quick and high-profile response reflected the high stakes the situation poses for Bush. The administration sees the establishment of a permanent government in Iraq as an important step toward stabilizing the country and allowing for the drawdown of U.S. forces there.
“Formation of a new Iraqi government is an opportunity for America to open a new chapter in our partnership with the Iraqi people,” Bush said Saturday. “The United States and our coalition partners will work with the new Iraqi government to reassess our tactics, adjust our methods and strengthen our mutual efforts to achieve victory in this central front in the war on terror.”
The weekend’s political developments laid the foundation for post-Saddam Hussein Iraq’s first fully constitutional government, which Washington hopes can quell the Sunni-led insurgency and bloody Shiite-Sunni violence. That would enable the United States to begin withdrawing its 133,000 troops.
Few believe the task will be easy. It remains uncertain whether Iraqi leaders representing religiously and ethnically based parties can set aside their interests and rise to the challenge of managing a nation perched at the brink of disaster.
“I don’t want to mislead you by leading you to believe that the improvement will happen instantaneously,” Khalilzad told reporters. “I think that with the formation of a national unity government with a good program and with competent ministers, Iraq will be on the right trajectory.”
Cutting ties with militants
The tough-talking al-Maliki, who once managed Shiite guerrillas in Saddam’s Iraq from exile in Syria, promised an inclusive government with “all components of Iraqi society.”
Al-Maliki, 55, also signaled he was prepared to crack down on Sunni insurgents and Shiite militias responsible for the rise in sectarian violence that threatens to plunge the nation into civil war.
“Weapons should be only the hands of the government,” al-Maliki told reporters. He pointed to laws requiring militias to be integrated into the nation’s security forces.
Al-Maliki’s toughest task will be assigning control of the defense and interior ministries, responsible for the army and the police. Sunnis have accused the Shiite-run Interior Ministry of tolerating death squads that target Sunni civilians. Army and police ranks are believed to be infiltrated by militias.
The current interior minister belongs to the largest Shiite party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), believed to operate a militia. U.S. officials have insisted the next minister have no ties to militias.
Al-Sadr pledges to keep his force
Another militia, the Mahdi Army, is controlled by radical anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who supported al-Jaafari for another term. Al-Sadr refuses to disband his force unless other militias are abolished and the army and police prove capable of protecting Shiites from Sunni extremists.
While politicians from all sides called for unity and an end to sectarianism in Saturday’s parliament session, the differences were visible.
The new Sunni parliament speaker, Mahmoud al-Mashhadani, insisted the armed forces must be built “on the basis of national loyalty” and spoke strongly against sectarian violence — code among Sunnis for militia violence.
Then a lawmaker stood and chided him for not speaking out against terrorism — a reference to the Sunni-led insurgency.
Al-Jaafari took the podium and barked, “Your only enemy is terrorism. That is all.”
Reputation as a hard-liner
In his new role, al-Maliki must make overtures to the disaffected Sunni Arab community, the backbone of the insurgency. Sunni Arab politicians accepted al-Maliki despite his reputation as a hardline champion of Shiite rights.
Al-Maliki was deputy chairman of a committee formed to purge Saddam allies from political life. Many Sunnis believed the committee’s goal was to deny them a role in Iraq.
He also was a tough negotiator in deliberations over Iraq’s new constitution, passed last year despite Sunni Arab objections. He resisted U.S. efforts to put more Sunnis on the drafting committee as well as Sunni efforts to dilute provisions giving Shiites and Kurds the power to form semiautonomous mini-states in the north and south.
Under a deal worked out with Sunnis last year, parliament has four months to consider constitutional amendments, a process likely to strain relations among the ethnic and religious groups at a time when the Americans are pushing for unity.