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THE WORLD

Determined Iraqis Overcome Final Hurdles

Lawmakers whip past last-minute objections and approve Cabinet picks in eight minutes.

May 21, 2006|James Rainey | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — First, an unknown voice called out, demanding two more days to consider the Cabinet nominations. Then a Sunni Arab lawmaker, arriving late, commandeered the floor and led a walkout ("This is not the democracy we were promised!") by a handful of his colleagues.

A last-ditch bid to slow the proceedings came from a member of a secular Shiite slate. Dressed in a stylish fitted jacket and eschewing the hijab that covered most of her female colleagues' heads, Safiya Suhail waved, shouted ("It's unconstitutional!") and finally formed her hands into a "T," pleading for a timeout like a schoolyard basketball player.

But Prime Minister-designate Nouri Maliki, and most of the members of the Iraqi parliament, would not be deterred. They were going to approve their new government Saturday, and in the process remove the "designate" from Maliki's title.

After five months of bickering and false starts, Iraq's elected leaders made a national television audience wait two more hours past the appointed time -- then took eight minutes to approve 36 Cabinet ministers, seemingly before anyone could find new reasons to object.

A failure to name three key ministers, continued sectarian bickering, the apparent absence of nine Cabinet nominees and Suhail's push for more formal voting instead of a quick show of hands would not deter the majority from its mission.

"This is the way it is supposed to be," said Ridha Taqi, a diminutive man who is a leader of the main Shiite party. "Someone has to protest, but we still want to form a government of national unity that everyone approves of. This is democracy."

Until the voting finally started at 1:15 p.m. Saturday, it wasn't clear whether Iraqis would finally get the government they have been waiting for since they voted in December to elect members to their new parliament, the Council of Representatives.

Meeting inside a shopworn Convention Center within the capital's heavily fortified Green Zone, the legislators arrived at a leisurely pace, by all appearances unaware of their promised 11 a.m. start time. Western reporters milled about and reminded one another of similar scenes -- when interim lawmakers repeatedly promised they had a government, then failed to deliver.

But at least some of the Iraqis seemed more optimistic. A group of volunteer doctors, there in case of emergency, said they were thrilled to witness history in the making.

The boyish police officers in baby blue uniforms who normally slouch about the entrance to the Convention Center jumped to attention with the arrival of President Jalal Talabani. They quickly formed into two receiving lines, stomped their boots in unison and snapped off a neat salute.

The legislators crowded first into the building's un-air-conditioned cafeteria -- turbaned sheiks and men in suits fanning themselves with sheets of paper as Baghdad eased into another 100-plus-degree day.

Once finally inside the auditorium, they were blasted by 30 air-conditioning units perched on balconies on either side of the hall. The national anthem played on a continuous loop: a jaunty rendition by an Iraqi pop singer who lives in exile.

For another hour, Maliki received a slow parade of well-wishers and other front-row guests, including U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad; Army Gen. George W. Casey, the top U.S. military commander in Iraq; and Ahmad Chalabi, the former Pentagon favorite who had helped convince the Bush administration that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction.

The proceedings finally got underway with a reading from the Koran. Within 25 minutes, Maliki had whipped past all objections, read the names of his Cabinet appointees and recorded a show of hands to approve all of them.

After more than three years of war, two elections and five months of waiting, Iraq finally had most of a new government in place. (Maliki and his allies promised they would deliver the names of the crucial Defense, Interior and National Security ministers within a week.)

An elaborate inauguration had been planned for Monday. A children's choir was to sing. Victims of Saddam Hussein's regime were to have been honored, along with those who have fallen to the insurgents opposed to the U.S.-backed government.

But Maliki, a balding, bespectacled main with a reedy voice, reportedly told associates he thought it would look better if he simply went to work.

He plans to conduct a Cabinet meeting today.

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