By Shashank Bengali and Mohammed El Dulaimy, The Christian Science Monitor
Iraqâ€™s Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki waits to take an oath at the house of parliament in Baghdad December 21, 2010.
Baghdad – Iraq unveiled a new and broad-based government Tuesday that comprised all its major religious and ethnic factions and raised hope that the countryâ€™s nine-month political impasse could finally be over.
Prime Minister Nouri al Malikiâ€™s Cabinet, however, leaves open the key ministries responsible for security and military affairs for now, because lawmakers havenâ€™t agreed on who should fill them. Thereâ€™s still no deal, either, on creating a yet-to-be-named strategic council â€” a U.S.-backed initiative aimed at curbing Malikiâ€™s powers â€” which lawmakers said could be weeks away.
The gaps could yet unravel the long and extremely contentious process of forming the new government, which has left Iraq adrift and unhappy for most of the year even as violence dropped to its lowest levels since 2003 and the U.S. military withdrew all but 50,000 of its troops.
The remaining U.S. forces are due to depart over the next 12 months, a crucial period during which Iraqâ€™s new government will be expected to address a staggering roster of challenges. These include: maintaining security, rebuilding the economy and infrastructure, creating jobs, resolving boundary disputes, regulating the oil sector, integrating militias into the armed forces and drumming up foreign investment for a country thatâ€™s still widely regarded as a conflict zone.
Maliki, who won a second term as prime minister mainly with the backing of Iraqâ€™s majority Shiite Muslims, was unable to fulfill pledges to streamline his Cabinet, which many Iraqis think is too large and wasteful. But he filled key posts with rivals, including followers of Muqtada al Sadr, an anti-American Shiite cleric and, as one of his three deputies, Saleh al Mutlaq, a Sunni Muslim who until days ago was banned from the government because of alleged ties to Saddam Husseinâ€™s now-defunct Baath Party.
Maliki also secured the support of his chief rival, Ayad Allawi, whose bloc of Sunnis and secular Shiites narrowly edged Malikiâ€™s backers in the March parliamentary elections. Allawi has no job yet but is expected to lead the strategic council, and he said that Maliki had his â€œfull support.â€
Lawmakers approved 31 of 42 positions â€” the remainder are to be announced within days â€” in a Cabinet that will be larger than that of most Western democracies. Maliki has three deputy prime ministers but hasnâ€™t yet named a minister for electricity, which is perhaps No. 1 on the average Iraqiâ€™s public service wish list.
Acknowledging the shortcomings in front of a packed parliament hall, Maliki said the government â€œdoes not satisfy the ambitions of the citizen, nor the political blocs, nor or my ambitions. …It was formed and assembled under exceptional circumstances.â€
The Obama administration was more eager to celebrate nearing the end of months of behind-the-scenes wrangling that had left U.S. policy priorities in limbo.
â€œToday, Iraqâ€™s political leaders delivered what Iraqâ€™s people deserved and expected: an inclusive, national partnership government that reflects the results of Iraqâ€™s elections,â€ Vice President Joe Biden, the White Houseâ€™s point man on Iraq, said in a statement.
Malikiâ€™s immediate challenges, experts said, are to create the post for Allawi and to name the ministers to handle defense, interior and national security.
Beyond that, it was unclear how Maliki â€” who alienated allies during his first term and was criticized for concentrating too much power with his Dawa Party of Shiite Islamists â€” would manage a coalition that spans the full spectrum of Iraqi politics, from staunch secularists to radical Islamists and northern Kurds.
â€œTo get such a diverse group of individuals and parties together, thatâ€™s not an easy thing to do,â€ said Shadi Hamid, a Middle East expert with the Brookings Institution, a research center in Washington.
â€œBut itâ€™s a very unwieldy thing they have here. How Maliki keeps all the different factions and individuals, a lot of them antagonistic and working at cross-purposes, under a central authority. … It could be a very messy thing.â€
One key question mark is the role of Sadr, the hard-line cleric whose militiamen violently opposed U.S. forces but in recent years have tried to recast themselves as a political organization. Sadrists were named to head eight ministries, including the influential Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs.
None of the ministers announced Tuesday were women, a fact that Alaa Talabani, a Kurdish parliamentarian, said amounted to a â€œslaughtering of democracy.â€
Tuesday evening, hours after the announcement, the streets of the Iraqi capital were subdued. Few seemed in a mood to celebrate the start of their new government. It wasnâ€™t clear whether this was because the wait had been so long, the task ahead was too monumental â€” or it wasnâ€™t itself much of an accomplishment.
â€œI see a government that (is) designed to serve political parties rather than a government that can serve peopleâ€™s needs right now,â€ Rahman Aljebouri, an Iraq expert at the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, wrote in an e-mail. â€œAlso it seems this new democratic system in Iraq doesnâ€™t believe in womenâ€™s leadership too.â€
(Dulaimy is a McClatchy special correspondent. Special correspondents Laith Hammoudi and Sahar Issa contributed to this article.)