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As US troops leave, Iraq inches toward a new government

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki met Tuesday with Ayad Allawi to discuss forming a new government and decide who will be prime minister. But the main Shiite, Sunni, and Kurdish factions are still negotiating.

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Allawi is a secular Shiite, but his Iraqiya Party includes a large number of Sunnis, which the INA says precludes him from being given a post informally reserved for a Shiite. When the US disbanded the Iraqi Army and banned former Baath Party members from government jobs, Sunnis suffered disproportionately. Disenfranchised and disillusioned, they formed the core of the insurgency and widely boycotted previous elections. The country is still emerging from the depths of civil war three years ago.

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Not enough Shiites to be PM

“The intersection that we will reach is that Iraqiya has only 13 Shiites with seats [in parliament] and the rest are Sunni,” says Adeeb explaining why, in their view, Allawi would not be eligible for the post of prime minister.

Under the arrangement first set up during US occupation, Iraq’s prime minister is Shiite, the president a Kurd, and the speaker of parliament a Sunni Arab.

The new parliament convened last month as required by the Constitution but was too divided to elect a speaker and adjourned after a ceremonial opening. All of the major posts are being negotiated together as a package.

In the streets, Iraqis care less about who will be prime minister or president than whether a new government will deliver health care, electricity, and jobs. Essential services have been a casualty of ministries run along sectarian and ethnic party lines and headed by ministers chosen by patronage rather than for competence.

With violent protests this month over electricity cuts, ordinary Iraqis have signaled they’ve had enough.

“I think there is going to be a lot of political horsetrading,” in forming the new government, said Ambassador Hill. “I think the biggest concern is one that a lot of the Iraqi people would have in that the Iraqi health minister should be the one who knows the most about health and the oil minister ought to be the person who knows the most about oil.”

Give us electricity not religion

Although political leaders got the message at the polls that voters are more interested in essential services than religion, the key posts in government, including the defense, interior, finance, oil, and foreign ministries are still expected to be handed out along ethnosectarian lines to parties that bargain the hardest for them.

“I do think it will be a broadly representative government – the politics of Iraq kind of dictate that, but sectarian identity remains paramount and that’s part of the Saddam legacy,” says former US ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker, who spoke by phone from Washington, D.C. “He [Saddam] deconstructed Iraqi society to such an extent that when his regime went away there were no other identities out there except the most primordial – family, clan, tribe and above all sect and ethnicity - so I think Iraq is a very long way from reinventing and reestablishing alternative identities."

Mr. Crocker says he worries not so much about the time it is taking to form a government as about the fact that no major decisions can be made until a new one is in place – at a time when US influence is diminishing along with its troop presence. President Obama has pledged that US combat troops will be out of Iraq by Sept. 1, and the noncombat US troop presence will fall to 50,000.

“Everything has been on hold not just since the election but in the runup to the election as well – provincial powers, resources, everything else is just on hold, and it’s going to stay that way until there is a new government ,” Crocker says. “For all the challenges Iraq has faced, the really big ones are still out there.”