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New Iraqi leader seeks unity

The hard-line Shiite premier now leads the wrangling over another 32 cabinet posts.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 24, 2006


Four months after Iraq voted, the government's top posts were named by Parliament this weekend. The winners called for an end to sectarian divisions and a commitment to unity that has proved so elusive since Saddam Hussein fell.

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Now new Prime Minister Jawad al-Maliki, parliamentary Speaker Mahmoud al-Mashadani and returning President Jalal Talabani, will guide the wrangling over 32 cabinet posts, a process with a 30-day deadline.

While that promises much drama, as Iraq's parties fight for key cabinet posts like the oil, defense, and interior ministries, politicians here say that the real test will be disarming Iraq's sectarian militias and finding an end to the violence that, in the eyes of average Iraqis, overshadows everything here.

Mr. Maliki promised they "will work as one family" and Mr. Mashadani vowed to "eliminate" sectarian tension. But the men in question also reflect the ethnic and religious divisions of the nation.

"This isn't national unity, this is just Shiite, Kurd, and Sunni dividing up power,'' says says Rasim al-Awadi, a leader of the secular-leaning al-Iraqiya electoral coalition led by former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, whose hopes of a major role in the government were dashed by a poor showing at the polls. "This sectarian approach could mean problems."

Maliki is a hard-line Shiite who has dabbled in inflammatory sectarian rhetoric. He is the No. 2 man in the Islamist Dawa Party, who fled Iraq in 1979 when Mr. Hussein is said to have started executing party leaders. He spent most of his exile in Syria as a political officer for Dawa, at a time when the party developed close ties with Hizbullah in Lebanon and with Iran, supporting that country's war with Hussein's Iraq.

He replaces Ibrahim al-Jaafari, Dawa's leader, who oversaw a steep deterioration in Iraq's stability during his brief tenure.

Mr. Jaafari's failures, and a poor relationship with Kurdish leaders, led to almost unanimous opposition among the Shiites' opponents. They saw him step aside last Friday. That paved the way for Maliki to take up his post Saturday in a parliamentary vote US and Iraqi officials hope will replace the political vacuum that has prevailed this year.

On Saturday, President Bush hailed the decision, saying "this historic achievement by determined Iraqis will make America more secure," while also urging Iraq to "establish control over the militias."

Though the US has sought to disarm Iraq's militias for at least two years, and Maliki said Saturday he intended to see sectarian militias integrated into the country's armed forces, resistance promises to be great on all sides.

Sunday President Talabani, a Kurd, said at a joint press conference in Arbil with US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, that the peshmerga aren't militias at all, instead calling them a "regulated force." But the Kurdish fighters, thought to number about 10,000, are loyal to his party and its main Kurdish rival, the Kurdistan Democratic Party.

Ambassador Khalilzad said, for his part, that the US views all Iraqi militias as the "infrastructure of civil war."