Iraqi government starts to take shape

A Shiite prime minister, probably Ibrahim al-Jaafari, and top cabinet ministers could be named as early as Thursday.

Creating democracy in Iraq has been a long, hard slog. But after two months of wrangling, the country's key political factions turned a corner this week. They finally agreed on the top government posts, including a Sunni parliamentary speaker, Shiite and Sunni vice presidents, and a Kurdish president.

With the logjam between the two major political blocs - Shiites and Kurds - broken, the pace of appointments is quickening. As soon as Thursday, a Shiite prime minister and top cabinet ministers could be named.

The protracted deadlock had begun to infuriate the Iraqi public and showed signs of buoying a tenacious insurgency. Among US officials, concern over the delay had been muted by the argument that Iraq's new leaders needed time to settle into a completely reversed power pyramid - before taking on the awaiting challenges.

But the tough bargaining over top government posts has left such thorns as regional sharing of oil revenues and Islam's role in the government largely to later debate. And concerns have grown over the time it has taken to put a functioning, post-elections government in place.

The accord is a sign that Iraqis are learning to compromise - a concept that was underdeveloped, to say the least, in the dictatorial regime of Saddam Hussein. But analysts say that it's only the first leg of a long road ahead that includes writing a new constitution.

"Yes, this is a good step, but it's just the beginning," says Phebe Marr, an Iraq specialist at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington.

Both the Iraqi people and outsiders including the US might have preferred that the process of forming a government move faster, but "Iraq is going through revolutionary change here," Ms. Marr adds, "and we should expect that there will be big problems, that things won't fall into place on some kind of ideal timeline."

The most promising sign, she says, is that Iraqis ethnic and religious communities are learning to compromise. Less encouraging, Marr says, is how the debate has resulted in pushing off what she calls Iraq's "existential issues" to later resolution.

Wednesday the national assembly named Jalal Talabani, a Kurdish leader, as president. The vice-presidents will be Adel Abdul Mahdi, a Shiite Arab political leader, and Ghazi al-Yawer, a Sunni sheik who is also president of the interim government. All three are well-known figures in Iraq. The presidency council is expected to name Ibrahim al-Jaafari, leader of a Shiite political party, to the powerful prime minister post Thursday.

One area of concern is the impact the long weeks of behind-doors negotiations for a leadership has had on the public. "It's taken some of the enthusiasm out," says Henri Barkey, a former State Department Iraq analyst. A government that got out of the blocks quickly and was seen addressing the insurgency and the country's glaring lack of services could have built on the optimism people were feeling for Iraq's new democracy after the Jan. 30 elections, he says.

"As it is now, they've expended some of their honeymoon capital," says Mr. Barkey, at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa.

Key to the government's credibility with Iraqis will be making improvements on the ground. Basic services like electricity are still shoddy and many ministries have been unable to carry out the most basic functions for weeks, like renewing driver's licenses.

People "hope the new government is going to do something for them, especially the security situation," says Nabil Mohammed, a senior instructor in the Center for International Studies at Baghdad University. "We hope they can succeed in their task and do something for the country. [But] I know it's not easy."

The agreement on the presidency council holds out hope that other key issues that have been held up can now be addressed. In effect, approval of the presidency opens the way to forming the rest of the government - and is thus a sign that the two largest groups, conservative religious Shiites and Kurds, are finally past logjams on various issues.

The new government is only supposed to last until elections next December. And once the government is formed the assembly can finally get down to its real work, writing a permanent constitution. That is supposed to be finished by Aug. 15 - unless lawmakers ask for a six-month extension, which many Iraqi leaders are hinting is increasingly likely.

"If it took them this long to choose leaders with an uncomplicated majority in parliament, it seems wishful thinking that they could finish up on time on the constitution," says Mr. Barkey. "It takes up much more fundamental issues."

The most prickly among those, he says, will be the role of religion in the constitution and in Iraqi public life, and the setting of internal boundaries of the new Iraqi federation. That refers primarily to the boundaries of the Kurdistan region, where the northern city of Kirkuk will fall in the new demarcation, and therefore how Iraq's northern oil revenues will be divided.

The government "is going to have to start delivering services and security, or they are going to lose the population," Marr says. "At the same time these big issues like religion in government and basic rights have such impact on the country's longer term prospects. The two are going to have to be balanced."

That is where outside powers like the US come in, Marr says: not spelling things out for the new leaders, but helping on the public's day-to-day needs so the assembly can get the constitution right.

Correspondent Jill Carroll in Baghdad contributed to this report.

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