Stark challenges ahead for the new Iraqi government



Iraqi Parliament Speaker Osama al-Nujaifi (R) congratulates Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki after forming the new government at the Baghdad parliament.

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 US soldiers in Iraq after their scheduled departure in December 2011. Prime Minister Nouri 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 Maliki, who has made more than his share of enemies as prime minister since May 2006.
Parliament originally tapped 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 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.
US 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.”
At United Nations headquarters in New York, Security Council members said they welcomed the formation of the new government.
“This decision reflects the will of the Iraqi people as displayed by the parliamentary election of 7 March 2010,” the council said. “We encourage its leaders to continue to pursue a federal, democratic, pluralistic and unified Iraq based on the rule of law and respect for human rights.”
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, 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,” 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 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 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. “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 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, 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.

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