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Iraq's new government raises hopes even as key ministries go unfilled

Iraq unveiled a broad-based government Tuesday that includes all the country's major religious and ethnic factions. The key security and military affairs ministries remain open.

By Shashank BengaliMcClatchy Newspapers, Mohammed El DulaimyMcClatchy Newspapers / December 21, 2010

The Iraqi Parliament sits to approve a new government in Baghdad Tuesday. Iraqi lawmakers unanimously approved a new government to be headed by incumbent Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, ending nine months of political deadlock.

Karim Kadim/AP

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Baghdad

Iraq unveiled a new and broad-based government Tuesday that comprised all its major religious and ethnic factions and raised hope that the country's nine-month political impasse could finally be over.

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Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki's Cabinet, however, leaves open the key ministries responsible for security and military affairs for now, because lawmakers haven't agreed on who should fill them. There's still no deal, either, on creating a yet-to-be-named strategic council — a U.S.-backed initiative aimed at curbing Maliki's powers — which lawmakers said could be weeks away.

The gaps could yet unravel the long and extremely contentious process of forming the new government, which has left Iraq adrift and unhappy for most of the year even as violence dropped to its lowest levels since 2003 and the U.S. military withdrew all but 50,000 of its troops.

The remaining U.S. forces are due to depart over the next 12 months, a crucial period during which Iraq's new government will be expected to address a staggering roster of challenges. These include: maintaining security, rebuilding the economy and infrastructure, creating jobs, resolving boundary disputes, regulating the oil sector, integrating militias into the armed forces and drumming up foreign investment for a country that's still widely regarded as a conflict zone.

Maliki, who won a second term as prime minister mainly with the backing of Iraq's majority Shiite Muslims, was unable to fulfill pledges to streamline his Cabinet, which many Iraqis think is too large and wasteful. But he filled key posts with rivals, including followers of Muqtada al Sadr, an anti-American Shiite cleric and, as one of his three deputies, Saleh al Mutlaq, a Sunni Muslim who until days ago was banned from the government because of alleged ties to Saddam Hussein's now-defunct Baath Party.

Maliki also secured the support of his chief rival, Ayad Allawi, whose bloc of Sunnis and secular Shiites narrowly edged Maliki's backers in the March parliamentary elections. Allawi has no job yet but is expected to lead the strategic council, and he said that Maliki had his "full support."

Lawmakers approved 31 of 42 positions — the remainder are to be announced within days — in a Cabinet that will be larger than that of most Western democracies. Maliki has three deputy prime ministers but hasn't yet named a minister for electricity, which is perhaps No. 1 on the average Iraqi's public service wish list.

Acknowledging the shortcomings in front of a packed parliament hall, Maliki said the government "does not satisfy the ambitions of the citizen, nor the political blocs, nor or my ambitions. ...It was formed and assembled under exceptional circumstances."

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