Iraq seated a freely elected government Tuesday after nine months of haggling, bringing together the main ethnic and religious groups in a fragile balance that could make it difficult to rebuild a nation devastated by war as American troops prepare for their final withdrawal.
One of the government's first priorities will be to decide whether to ask the Obama administration to keep thousands of U.S. soldiers in Iraq after their scheduled departure in December 2011.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's new government solidifies the grip that Shiites have held on political power since Saddam Hussein's ouster. It leaves open the question of whether the country's disgruntled Sunni minority will play a meaningful role.
Despite tortuous negotiations that threatened to unravel the country's tenuous democratic gains, the public face of the new government will look remarkably like the outgoing one. The prime minister, president and foreign minister will remain the same. The outcome was a huge victory for al-Maliki, who has made more than his share of enemies as prime minister since May 2006. Parliament originally tapped al-Maliki as a compromise candidate to lead Iraq following tumultuous elections in December 2005 during the height of the war.
The new government was sworn in Tuesday immediately after the Iraqi parliament voted to approve 34 Cabinet ministers including al-Maliki. The remainder of the 44-member Cabinet is made up of acting ministers who will be replaced at a later date because of ongoing disputes among coalition partners.
President Barack Obama praised Iraq for building an inclusive coalition that he described as "a clear rejection of the efforts by extremists to spur sectarian division."
Al-Maliki hailed what he called a unified but diverse government, the creation of which was "the most difficult task in the world."
But even as he praised the new government, al-Maliki hinted at its weakness: the need to include all the major political factions as a way to preserve stability at the expense of efficiency.
"There were people whose parties have only one or two seats and even they were demanding a ministry," al-Maliki said. "So I know that nobody is satisfied with me."
Indeed, two groups blasted the new Cabinet even before it was sworn in.
The Kurdish splinter Goran party, which has only eight lawmakers, said it should have gotten more than the one Cabinet post it was offered and threatened to boycott the government. And women lawmakers jeered the male-dominated political parties for largely excluding them from the Cabinet though they make up a quarter of parliament.
"This government is not a strong one because it is built on sectarian divisions and self-interests," said Hassan al-Alawi, a leading member of the Sunni-backed Iraqiya coalition that won bragging rights by narrowly edging al-Maliki's bloc in the March 7 parliamentary election. "It is a fragile government."
Doing the work of the government ultimately may prove as hard as putting one together.
Experts said Iraq's top priority over the next few years is to control its vacillating levels of violence and protect itself from foreign threats. Sandwiched between Shiite majority Iran and Sunni Arab states, Iraq is a Mideast fault line for sectarian tensions and has weak borders.
Baghdad University political analyst Hadi Jalo said that factor alone should help al-Maliki gain the necessary support from parliament to ask U.S. troops to remain in Iraq past the December 2011 deadline outlined in a security agreement between Washington and Baghdad — should he choose to do so.
"Stability is the backbone for any other progress," Jalo said. "Al-Maliki knows that he cannot overcome any challenges while the security problem is not solved. This is the only way to win the trust of the people and the foreign investors."
The clock is already ticking on that decision: A senior U.S. military official said plans will be approved by early April to start sending troops and 1.75 million pieces of equipment back to the U.S. next summer. The official spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the ongoing discussions.
Neither Obama nor al-Maliki has shown any enthusiasm for keeping U.S. soldiers in Iraq. More than 4,400 American troops and tens of thousands of Iraqis died in a war that has yet to bring stability and prosperity to this oil-rich Middle Eastern nation.
On Tuesday, al-Maliki maintained his commitment to keeping "the pact of the foreign troops' withdrawal, according to the announced schedule."
Saying otherwise, however, amounts to political suicide before he is firmly ensconced in his second term.
A slew of other top concerns must be settled quickly to satisfy Iraqis who have been frustrated with the lame-duck government since the March elections.
The government has been dithering for years over a package of laws that would streamline oversight of the country's oil wealth and make it more quickly available to investors. Iraq holds the world's fourth largest oil reserves, valued at $11 trillion according to current oil prices.
Electricity and water shortages, too, have been a major source of anger across Iraq — especially during the sweltering summers. Iraqis have been furious with lawmakers who collected cushy salaries and perks for doing light work while the rest of the country suffered.
"We hope that this government will offer something to the people," said Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq, a lawmaker with the secular Iraqiya bloc who only last week was allowed to return to political life after being accused of having links to Saddam's former regime.
Although Iraqiya won two more seats than al-Maliki's bloc did in the March elections, the prime minister was able to hang onto his job by making admittedly uneasy allies during months of backroom deals.
Iraqiya's leader, former prime minister Ayad Allawi, agreed to join al-Maliki's government in exchange for heading a council that will oversee the government's security and foreign policies. It was still unclear how much power the council will have.
Al-Maliki also had to accommodate the hardline Shiite followers of anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Al-Maliki and the Sadrists reached an uneasy detente several months ago after years of fighting each other.
A senior Sadrist said his 40-member political coalition was pressured by Iranian officials and Iraq's top Shiite cleric to fall in line behind al-Maliki. He spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive negotiations.
The competing demands within the new democracy will help foster Iraq's stability, said Joost Hiltermann of the International Crisis Group.
Still, "it's going to be a government that is beset by problems," Hiltermann said. "It's going to take a long time for Iraq to rebuild itself."
Associated Press writers Qassim Abdul-Zahra, Hamid Ahmed and Mazin Yahya contributed to this report from Baghdad and Sameer N. Yacoub from Amman, Jordan.