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A New Iraqi Government Takes Office

The inauguration ends a five-month deadlock. But the first full-term Cabinet since Hussein is incomplete and may be too diverse to prevail.

May 21, 2006|Megan K. Stack and Borzou Daragahi | Times Staff Writers

BAGHDAD — Iraq's battling communities came together Saturday to approve their first full-term government since the fall of Saddam Hussein, placing a nation fractured from three years of war into the hands of a diverse but potentially weak Cabinet.

In a stuffy chamber tucked deep inside rings of blast walls, barbed wire and bomb-sniffing dogs, parliament voted in favor of a 36-member Cabinet cobbled together by new Prime Minister Nouri Maliki. In the heart of the Green Zone, far from the reach of ordinary Iraqis, lawmakers raised their hands to vet each member.

The prime minister has yet to quell a swelling crisis over management of Iraq's security services. In the end, staring down a Monday deadline to appoint a Cabinet, Maliki delayed decisions on the key posts of the Interior, Defense and National Security ministries.

To buy time and push the government through parliament, he nominated temporary fill-ins -- himself as interior minister and his deputies, Barham Salih, a Kurd, and Salam Zikam Ali Zubaie, a Sunni Arab, for the National Security and Defense posts, respectively.

Although it was punctuated by a walkout by a handful of angry Sunni lawmakers, the inauguration shattered the deadlock that had paralyzed Iraqi governance since December.

"I stand solemnly before the souls of our martyrs and the precious blood offered by Iraqis, and seek inspiration from our people's steadfastness, sacrifices and pains, the imprisonment, torture, killing and terrorism they've faced," Maliki told the Council of Representatives, the Iraqi parliament. "Just as we did away with the tyrant [Hussein] and the days of oppression and despotism, we will do away with terrorism and sabotage."

But Maliki, a Shiite Muslim hard-liner, faces a perilous obstacle course. He has a Cabinet so wide-ranging that it could collapse, a 34-point program aimed at satisfying each faction, and a disillusioned, weary nation to govern.

The Cabinet, which includes four women, has 19 Shiites, eight Sunni Arabs, eight Kurds and one Christian.

Aside from the Interior, Defense and National Security portfolios, key posts include that of oil minister, held by Hussein Shahristani, a Shiite; foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari, a Kurd; justice minister, Hashim Abdul-Rahman Shibli, a Sunni Arab; finance minister, Bayan Jabr, a Shiite; and trade minister, Abed Falah Sudani, also a Shiite.

"This government won't be a panacea for solving all problems, but it's a beginning," Zebari said. "We wanted to present the whole Cabinet; it would have been better."

President Bush praised the new government, saying it "reflects Iraq's diversity and opens a new chapter in that country's history.... As Iraq's leaders work together to chart the future of their nation, bringing freedom and security to the Iraqi people, they make the world a safer place for all of us."

Safe streets and restored peace are the overwhelming desire of the Iraqi people, and a priority for any government that hopes to win public confidence. Not only have the security ministries been struggling in the face of daily killings, but some police units have been accused of operating as Shiite death squads.

Violence continued to rage outside the Green Zone on Saturday as the gears of government ground on.

At least 20 people were killed when a homemade bomb exploded in Sadr City, the mainly Shiite slum in northeastern Baghdad. Fifteen corpses were found in the capital, all with wrists bound and bearing signs of torture, an Interior Ministry source said. And in Yousifiya, about 10 miles south, insurgents planted explosives on an oil pipeline, setting off a massive blaze.

The steady carnage poses a challenge to the Bush administration too: Untainted, effective security services are essential to U.S. hopes of fading from Iraq's streets by reducing the numbers of troops and patrols.

U.S. officials say their best hope is a representative government. Bloodshed will slow, they say, if all Iraqis feel included.

"I'm not here to signal that just because the government has formed, the national unity government, that events will improve dramatically," U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad told reporters. "I believe Iraq ... is put on the right path. Now all communities are stakeholders with regard to the new Iraq."

Optimistic U.S. officials say Maliki may be able to garner wide popular support if he zeroes in on solving two or three festering problems, such as security woes and electricity shortages that continue to leave many Iraqis confined in hot darkness. Although the government of interim Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari had made security a priority, it did not enjoy the wide cross-sectarian support Maliki will have, a U.S. official said.

"I think it can be politically strong," said a Western official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "It's going to enjoy at least at the start much greater political support across the spectrum of Iraqi communities. If it performs well, it will have a chance to make that support not only broad but deep."

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