Al Maliki takes the reins in Iraq once more

Iraq's prime minister retains the top job and tightens his grip on security portfolios while Iraqiyya controls the finances in a fragile Cabinet.

Iraqi Parliament Speaker Osama al-Nujaifi addresses the parliament in Baghdad on December 21, 2010 as lawmakers gave Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's government a vote of confidence and adopted a 43-point programme aimed at liberalising the economy and fighting terrorism.  AFP PHOTO/ALI AL-SAADI
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BAGHDAD // A patched together coalition government, Iraq's second under the leadership of the prime minister, Nouri al Maliki, was formally approved by parliament yesterday after nine months of political deadlock.

In a vote televised live to the nation, MPs approved a compromise administration of 29 ministers, in addition to Mr al Maliki at the helm. The Cabinet was immediately sworn in and a broad political agenda of anti-terrorism and economic reform agreed upon.

The new government includes members of all of Iraq's major political, sectarian and ethnic groups, including Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds.

There is a deliberate division of jobs that reflects the predominately sectarian, rather than nationalist, dialogue against which the March elections were fought.

Mr al Maliki yesterday pointed to the problems he faced - and continues to face - in putting together a national unity administration designed to sustain a highly factional and fragile coalition, rather than simply building a majority-based government as he had wanted. Inconclusive election results meant no single party was in a dominant enough position to achieve a majority.

"The most difficult task in the world is forming a national unity government in a country where there is a diversity of ethnic, sectarian and political backgrounds," he told parliament, before his administration was approved.

"I do not say that this government, with all its formations, satisfies its citizens' aspiration, nor the political blocs', nor my ambition, nor any other person's ambition, because it is formed … in extraordinary circumstances."

The full 42-member Cabinet has still not been finalised - with numerous ministerial-level posts filled temporarily - a delay caused in part by the delicate balancing act required in placating all the coalition partners vying for influence.

Some of the blocs that were promised government jobs had failed to agree internally on who to nominate, a sign of the infighting that characterises Iraqi politics.

Mr al Maliki and his closest allies appear to have taken the lion's share of the ministerial spoils, as anticipated. The prime minister, in addition to his leadership of the Cabinet, also personally commands all the key security portfolios, including defence and the interior. It is an unprecedented concentration of power that was approved by the 325-member parliament - including the very parties that in the past have accused him of dictatorial ambitions and excessive centralisation of authority.

He was granted open-ended control of the security ministries, with no deadline set for appointing the ministers of defence, interior and national security.

Hussain al Shahristani, an ally of Mr al Maliki and the former oil minister, was made the deputy prime minister for energy, a role that should see him continuing to shape the critical area of oil policy. The country sits on one of the world’s largest reserves of oil, and a rapid increase in output is crucial in order to pay for much needed reconstruction efforts.

Iraqiyya, Mr al Maliki’s main rival for power, also picked up a series of strong government positions, including the importantfinance ministry, placed under the control of Rafie al Esawi.

Salah al Mutlaq, a leading Iraqiyya figure who was controversially banned from standing for parliament before the March elections only to be reinstated this week, was also made a deputy prime minister. Iraqiyya members were appointed to lead the

ministries of agriculture, education, industry and science.
"We as the Iraqiyya bloc declare our full support for this government," said Ayad Allawi, the bloc's leader and Mr al Maliki's main rival for the premiership. "Iraqiyya will play an active, productive and co-operative role."

Other groups, including the Sadrists and Kurds, fared less well in terms of the numbers of ministries and relative power of their posts, despite being important planks of Mr al Maliki’s coalition.

The Kurds took the ministry of health, retained the foreign ministry under Hoshyar Zebari and, in Jalal Talabani, continue to hold the presidency, although that post has been significantly weakened since the expiration of its previous veto powers.

In yesterday’s partial Cabinet announcement, the Sadrists, who played a major role in Mr al Maliki successfully being chosen as premier, picked up only three ministerial positions – the relatively minor portfolios of works and planning, housing and development, plus one minister of state.

The United States had been nervous about the potential role in the new government of the Sadrist movement, headed by the radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr.

Amer al Kinani, a Sadrist MP, criticised the make-up of the administration and said many of those put forward for Cabinet posts were not suitably qualified. But he stopped short of criticising the prime minister, instead placing blame on his coalition partners.

“Mr al Maliki was pushed by time pressures to accept most of the nominees without being able to properly study their CVs,” he said. “We hope these ministers will work hard for the future of Iraq – we will be watching them in the coming weeks and months.”

In addition to concern about the competence of the national coalition government, there were protests in parliament yesterday about the absence of any women in the Cabinet.

Mr al Maliki placed the blame on the parties and said he had only received one woman nominee, who was rejected because she was not qualified.

There were other dissenting voices inside parliament, including the Kurdish opposition “Change” list which, according to one of its MPs yesterday, decided to withdraw from the national unity government.

“Al Maliki did not give us a representative share of the Cabinet,” said Chian Mohammad. “Our election results meant we should have two ministries, but we were offered only one, so we are pulling out of the government.”