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

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.

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.

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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."

And if Maliki does move on the militias, he will also risk alienating his most important supporters. His nomination relied on the support of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), the largest Shiite party, and the political movement of Moqtada al-Sadr.

Both groups have large militias of their own. Iraq's Sunni Arab politicians have complained in recent months that SCIRI has packed the Interior Ministry, which controls the police, with members of its Badr militia, which has been accused of killing scores of Sunni Arabs. Mr. Sadr's militia, the Mahdi Army, largely controls the sprawling Baghdad neighborhood of Sadr City.

How Maliki will work with the US is, for the moment, also uncertain. While his attitude has been accommodating, the US worked behind the scenes to help scuttle the nomination of his colleague Jaafari, and in the past Maliki has shown suspicion to US intentions.

His Dawa party was opposed to the US invasion and refused to participate in US-organized opposition conferences before the war. He told a Lebanese newspaper in December 2002 that the US was seeking to turn Iraqi opposition groups into "obedient tools to implement [US] designs."

To be sure, some Sunni leaders say they intend to give Maliki the benefit of the doubt.

"From the beginning we knew that al-Jaafari was a thinker and not a manager, while the hard work was done by others, like al-Maliki, so [Maliki] should be more able to do the job,'' says Iyad al-Sammarai, a leader of the Iraqi Islamic Party, one of the main Sunni groups. "Yes there was some sectarian talk in the past, but during our talks with him he showed goodwill, a willingness to achieve security, so we'll give him a chance."

Nevertheless, Mr. Sammarai says the honeymoon will be short, if Sunni's aren't satisfied the country is moving in the right direction. "We're giving him the same chance we gave Jaafari, we gave Jaafari support at first, but he didn't deliver."

Mashadani and Talabani could also prove divisive. Mashadani, an opponent of Iraq's Constitution, has in the past referred to the use of Shiite militias by the Interior Ministry as "terrorism."

Talabani leads the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), one of two main Kurdish parties whose constituents say they want full independence from Iraq and a dramatic increase in their semi-autonomous regions in the interim, something Shiites and Sunnis are opposed to.

For now, Iraqis hope the new government will be a significant step to ending the violence here.

"Security is everything,'' says Ahmed Abbas, a physical education teacher in central Baghdad, who says he watched the parliament session in frustration as politician after politician complained about the hall's malfunctioning air-conditioning.

"I guess it's a new Iraq in the Green Zone - at least they have air-conditioning,'' he says, explaining the portable generator he relies on isn't good enough for more than a fan. "When is it going to change out here?"

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