Iraq's new government aims for peace

Prime Minister Maliki says he will focus on fighting insurgents, disarming party militias.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Iraq's new Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki met with his cabinet for the first time Sunday, vowing to use "maximum force" against insurgents, as bombs and sectarian attacks across the capital killed at least 20 people and provided the latest reminder that peace here remains elusive.

The approval by parliament of a 40-member cabinet Saturday concludes the country's transition to full political sovereignty. While the US hoped a four-year unity government would end the insurgency, three of the most important posts that will wage the new government's battle against the brutal rebellion are yet to have permanent leadership.

Mr. Maliki promised that his government would be one of inclusion, and balanced his promises to wipe out "terrorists" by saying he would be willing to negotiate with groups that renounce violence.

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"We can't confront terrorism by force alone ... we need national reconciliation,'' he told reporters.

Mr. Maliki, a Shiite Islamist from the Dawa Party who once oversaw Shiite militias seeking to overthrow Saddam Hussein, has named caretakers to the Security and Defense Ministries and has appointed himself interim interior minister, though Sunday he vowed he would fill the posts within days.

The fact that the ministries overseeing the Army and police are still without permanent ministers is a measure of how far apart Iraq's Shiites and Sunni Arabs remain on the biggest questions confronting the new government.

Outgoing Shiite Interior Minister Bayan Jabr is a reviled figure among Sunni Arabs, who have accused him of packing the police force with Shiite militiamen that they allege run anti-Sunni death squads. Though Mr. Jabr has now been given the finance portfolio, Sunni leaders like Adnan al-Dulaimi are determined to prevent another Shiite with ties to militias from controlling the police.

But some Shiite politicians have been just as committed to putting a man they trust into the role. And US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad has exerted strong pressure on Maliki, urging him to pick leaders for these key posts who don't have strong ties to party militias.

The prime minister has repeatedly promised to prevent overly sectarian figures from taking up the security portfolios, and US officials say they take him at his word.

"Prime Minister Maliki realizes the new government most forge unity,'' Ambassador Khalilzad said Saturday.

"In his public and private remarks, [Maliki] is saying all the right things,'' says one US diplomat. "He's being very inclusive ... my first impressions are very positive."

The Shiite coalition that Maliki belongs to controls about 130 seats in the 275 seat parliament, and needed buy-in from Sunni Arabs and Kurds to win a vote of confidence for the new government Saturday. That approval came with a simple show of hands by the delegates after about a dozen disgruntled Sunni Arab representatives walked out of the session.

Wrangling over posts took the better part of five months, as the political parties jostled for cabinet positions. The Shiite alliance was given a majority of the cabinet positions. In addition to the finance ministry, they control the oil portfolio. The Kurdish bloc was given eight posts, including the Foreign Ministry, and the main Sunni bloc was given eight cabinet positions, according to AP.

Sunday, Maliki said his plan to restore security will focus on Baghdad as a first step, and he renewed promises to disarm the country's militias. Kurds, Sunnis, and Shiites all have well-armed irregulars who aren't loyal to the state, and their influence has grown over the past year.

Sectarian militias are thought to be behind a wave of murder across the capital and in cities like Mosul in the north and Basra in the south. In the first four months of the year, the Baghdad morgue recorded 4,527 murders in the city, according to an official there. That number excludes the victims of car-bombs and other mass-casualty attacks, which aren't tracked by the morgue.

In the worst attack in Baghdad Sunday, a suicide bomber killed 13 people at a restaurant popular with police in Karrada district, Reuters reported. Such attacks, the work of Sunni Arab insurgents, are often used by Shiite politicians to justify the need for their militiamen.

"Weapons should only be in the hands of the government,'' Maliki said. "Militias, death squads, terrorism, killings, and assassinations aren't normal."

The US diplomat said Maliki's plan for ending the role of militias may follow a US-backed effort to disarm them in 2004 that failed. Paul Bremer, who ran the Coalition Provisional Authority that governed Iraq until sovereignty was restored, issued a decree outlawing militias and negotiated with political parties on plans to provide jobs for their militias in the national Army or the police.

But Iraqi politicians decided their interests were better served by keeping armed men on their payrolls.

Whether Maliki will now be able to wipe out - or at least weaken - Iraq's militias is an open question. He won the premiership with the support of groups like the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the movement of militant Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, and the Kurdish alliance. All three have militias.

The US official says those relations should make it easier for him to push forward disarmament. Maliki "has the support of the political leadership of the militias,'' he says.

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