Iraqi Lawmakers Approve a Government
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BAGHDAD -- Iraq's Parliament approved a new government on Tuesday, ending nine months of infighting that threatened to throw the nation into a constitutional crisis but leaving many festering problems unresolved.
The delay in forming a government led to growing unemployment, worsening services and rising cynicism among voters who risked their lives to participate in the March election. But the new government rests on jury-rigged alliances that may make it too unwieldy to address Iraq's many problems, especially as American troops prepare to withdraw by the end of 2011.
As he did after the previous election in 2005, Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki did not appoint heads for the ministries in charge of security, promising to do so later as he named himself as acting head of those posts.
Mr. Maliki told lawmakers he was "very content" -- even if he knew that they were not.
"I do not need anybody to sugarcoat me," Mr. Maliki said. "I have not satisfied anybody at all. Everybody is angry with me, and everybody is frustrated with me."
With all major political parties and ethnic groups participating for the first time in an Iraqi government, the 325-member Parliament approved each of the 34 ministers proposed by Mr. Maliki.
But in a sign of the new government's fragility, one small party walked out, and several lawmakers -- mainly women, who received only one cabinet ministry -- protested the government's makeup.
Now, a nation with virtually no democratic track record and a history of sectarian warfare must figure a way to move forward with a government that comprises four major blocs -- two Shiite, one Sunni-backed and multi-sectarian, and one Kurdish -- each with a different agenda.
All parties said they wanted an inclusive government. But the resulting body may be ill suited for solving the country's problems, including poor security, lack of an oil policy, and tensions between Arabs and Kurds over some of the country's most oil-rich territories, said Reidar Visser, author of "A Responsible End? The United States and the Iraqi Transition, 2005-2010."
"The downside is that all the compromises have had a price -- lots of ministries that aren't really needed," Mr. Visser said. "It's an open question whether the government will be able to decide on key legislation, which is really needed."
Against predictions and despite a number of coordinated, deadly attacks that rattled the country, Iraq did not experience an overall rise in violence during the impasse.
In Washington, President Obama called the vote in Parliament a "significant moment in Iraq's history" and "a clear rejection of the efforts by extremists to spur sectarian division."
American officials said that the inclusion of Sunni officials in high-ranking posts reduced the chances that disaffected Sunnis would split off from the political process and resume sectarian warfare, as happened after Sunnis boycotted the election five years ago.
One Sunni politician whose ties to Saddam Hussein's Baath Party had barred him from holding office was appointed as one of three deputy prime ministers. The speaker of Parliament, a powerful position that drives the legislative agenda, is a Sunni. And Mr. Maliki, a religious Shiite, replaced the Shiite finance minister with a Sunni.
"This is a very good day for U.S. policy in Iraq," Christopher R. Hill, a former American ambassador in Baghdad, said in a telephone interview. "Iraqis are not fond of giving Christmas presents, but I think they gave us one today."
The relatively robust Sunni and Kurdish representation in the new government could help Mr. Maliki navigate one of the most immediate and vexing choices facing his new government: whether any of the 50,000 American troops now in Iraq will stay past a withdrawal deadline of December 2011.
American officials have said that the United States military would stay if asked, but until Tuesday, there had been no Iraqi government with the legal standing to make such a request.
Mr. Maliki has said he is committed to the American withdrawal, but Iraqi officials have privately cited the need for some sort of residual force.
Lawmakers aligned with the anti-American cleric Moktada al-Sadr are vehemently opposed to American forces here.
The Sadrists failed in a bid to secure a slot as deputy prime minister, a development that pleased American officials. But some say their involvement in the government also reduces chances of violence.
The new council of ministers includes 10 members of Iraqiya, the multi-sectarian, Sunni-backed bloc that finished slightly ahead of Mr. Maliki's in the March election, and 8 members of the Sadrist movement.
The agreement among seemingly irreconcilable forces is a testament to the political shrewdness of Mr. Maliki, whose re-election campaign finished second in the election with fewer than one-third of the seats. After this weak showing, he outflanked his rivals and formed alliances with former antagonists.
Critics consider Mr. Maliki an authoritarian who used the political process to consolidate his own power and neutralize his rivals.
"Authoritarian tendencies -- that's part of Iraqi political culture," said Ryan C. Crocker, former United States ambassador to Iraq and now dean of the George Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University. He said that Mr. Maliki had formed a broad enough coalition that he did not rely on any of his allies.
"If the Sadrists decide to walk at some point, Maliki can say, 'fine,' " Mr. Crocker said. "If Iraqiya pulls out, it won't force a vote of no confidence. He's got a lot of latitude. Some of the alliances may not hold up. And that may be O.K. with him."
At Tuesday's session, a member of Iraqiya shouted, "This is not democracy, this is not fair," but the Parliament speaker, Osama al-Nujaifi, who is also from Iraqiya, shouted him down. One Iraqiya lawmaker, Hassan al-Allawi, angry that he was not made minister of culture, criticized the bloc's leader and said that he expected 40 members to break off from the coalition and form an opposition in Parliament.
The new government held several significant smaller developments. In one, a sectarian Sunni became minister of education, succeeding a religious Shiite at the helm of a system that has become more religious since the fall of Mr. Hussein in 2003.
"There's a political agreement now to make books more general, not religious," said Mohamad Ali Tamim, the new minister.
Female lawmakers, and many male allies, protested that only one minor office, an unspecified ministry of state, went to a woman, Bushra Salah, even though Iraq's Constitution mandates that one-fourth of all parliamentary seats be held by women.
"It's not society -- society is much, much better than our leaders," said Safia al-Souheil, a lawmaker from Mr. Maliki's bloc, who openly criticized the prime minister for not doing more for women.
The female lawmakers refused the position of minister of women's affairs, because they felt they were being marginalized. The position went to a man, Hoshyar al-Zebari, who was also made foreign minister. His appointment as minister of women's affairs drew laughter from some lawmakers.
First Published December 21, 2010 11:50 pm