BAGHDAD – Parliament swore in a new Iraqi government Tuesday after nine months of bitter political haggling, solidifying the grip that Shiites have held on political power since Saddam Hussein’s ouster while leaving open the question of whether the country’s disgruntled Sunni minority will play a meaningful role.
The new government led by incumbent Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki got off to a shaky start as disagreements among coalition partners prevented al-Maliki from naming some of his more than 40 Cabinet ministers. And this fragile coalition must address enormous and pressing challenges such as the heavy cost of rebuilding from the devastation seven years of war has wrought and lingering sectarian tensions that periodically explode into violence.
Another urgent priority will be leading the country through the withdrawal of American troops, scheduled for the end of next year. More than 4,400 American troops and tens of thousands of Iraqis died in a war that has yet to bring stability and prosperity to this oil-rich Middle Eastern nation.
Lawmakers approved about 30 ministers including al-Maliki to form the new government. The remainder of the 42-member Cabinet is made up of acting ministers who will be replaced at a later date because of ongoing disputes between coalition partners.
“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,” al-Maliki said speaking before the vote.
He vowed to create a government that would combat terrorism, address the still-festering sectarian divisions and repair relations with neighboring, Sunni-dominated Arab countries, who are largely suspicious of the Shiite-led government.
The new Cabinet members were immediately sworn in following the nationally televised vote that approved them.
President Barack Obama called the government formation a “significant moment” in the country’s history and a “major step forward.” Obama also said it was a “clear rejection” of sectarian extremism.
A spokesman for U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon described it as “a major step forward in Iraq’s democratic progress” while calling on the new government to now get to work on national reconciliation, reconstruction and long-term stability.
Iraqis elections on March 7 did not give any single bloc a majority in the 325-member parliament, leading to nine months of political jockeying to form the new government. Although al-Maliki’s coalition came in a close second to a Sunni-backed coalition led by former prime minister Ayad Allawi, it was al-Maliki who was able to eventually patch together the necessary support needed to keep his office.
The new government includes members of all of Iraq’s major political and sectarian factions, including Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds.
The vote Tuesday was largely a display of unity that belies the still festering problems between the Shiite majority and the Sunni minority that used to make up the backbone of the insurgency. Sunnis dominated the regime under Saddam.
Allawi, who at one point had vowed to never join an al-Maliki-led government, told lawmakers ahead of the vote that his bloc of 91 lawmakers would support and cooperate with the new government.
One of the key questions leading up to the government formation was the role that the Sunni-backed Iraqiya coalition would play. U.S. officials had lobbied heavily for Allawi to be included in some fashion, fearing that leaving him and the Iraqiya coalition out of the government entirely or excluding them from meaningful roles would incite a return to the type of sectarian violence that at one point almost tore the country apart.
Allawi is slated to head a new council overseeing foreign policy and security related issues but there are already disagreements between his coalition and al-Maliki’s about how much power the council will have.
Iraqiya only recently dropped its long-standing demand that Allawi should have the first shot at forming the government. Allawi’s concession came after he was assured that Sunnis will not be excluded from the government.
Other members of Iraqiya to garner top Cabinet posts were Saleh al-Mutlaq, who will be deputy prime minister and Rafia al-Issawi, who will be finance minister.
Kurdish lawmaker Hoshyar Zebari will hold onto the influential foreign ministry post.
But some of the ministries are still to be decided, reflecting the challenges al-Maliki faces including all the country’s sects and political affiliations in the new government. He has named acting ministers to fill those ministries after disputes with his erstwhile Sadrist allies about who among the Sadrists would get Cabinet posts.
It was al-Sadr’s support — in a deal brokered by Iran — that largely enabled al-Maliki to build the framework for a majority coalition.
The Sadrist alliance holds 40 of parliament’s 325 seats. Their partnership with al-Maliki has always been tenuous, and came as a surprise because the two had been enemies since 2008 when the prime minister launched an offensive crushing al-Sadr’s militia in eastern Baghdad and the southern city of Basra.
The ministries still to be decided include the critical defense, interior and national security posts. Those positions are closely watched in Iraq for any sign that they are being abused by one side or another across the sectarian divide.
The role of the those positions will become even more important as Iraq takes over more security responsibilities from American troops who are scheduled to leave the country by the end of next year.
In addition to his role as prime minister, al-Maliki will also serve as acting defense, interior and national security minister.
The Iraqiya alliance narrowly defeated al-Maliki at the March election, garnering 91 seats to al-Maliki’s 89 seats. But after months of wrangling, Iraqiya could never find enough support to form a majority government.