Iraq Prime Minister Maliki must set priorities for the new government

The challenges in Iraq are endless, and they all seem urgent. That's why it's important for Maliki and his new unity government to focus on the most important ones.

The newly formed government in Iraq faces a to-do list as long as the Euphrates River that courses through this bomb-battered country. As tempting as it may be to tackle every need at once – they all seem so urgent – Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki must set priorities.

He acknowledges that. But the ministers in his vast “unity government” – there are 42 cabinet posts – will undoubtedly have their own agendas. After parliamentary elections last March, it took nine months of negotiation to piece together a government of Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds, announced Dec. 21.

Now the really hard part begins, bettering the lives of the governed. But where to start?

Mr. Maliki, who enters his second term as prime minister, puts security first, and rightly so. A primary responsibility of any state is to protect its people. Maliki needs to consolidate the security gains of the past year, which saw the lowest level of violence since 2003.

Still, while terrorism no longer threatens to bring down the state, attacks continue, killing about 3,500 people last year. The US has agreed to withdraw its last troops by year’s end, which Maliki also insists on, at least in public. Still, he has hinted that a new agreement could be negotiated. If he has that in mind, he had better start soon, given the lead time that a military needs.

The other function of a state is to provide basic services: power, water, infrastructure, schooling, etc. This new government would gain instant credibility with the population, however, if it could significantly improve just one thing: electrical service.

Iraqis have access to power only a few hours a day. Intermittent availability set off deadly protests last summer, when temperatures passed 120 degrees F. and air conditioners had no juice. The electricity minister was forced to resign.

Unemployment also needs attention. Jobs are concentrated in the public sector, which is unable to keep up with a growing young population – 450,000 Iraqis entering the workforce every year.

Iraq could spark improvement in many of these areas if the various factions in government could finally settle on a formula to share the oil wealth, hopefully by putting it all into one pot and dividing it equitably and transparently.

Oil is concentrated in different regions, some areas in territorial dispute. Oil sales make up more than 90 percent of state revenue. Settling on an oil revenue-sharing formula could act as a catalyst – to jobs, services, and smoother relations between regions.

Security, electricity, jobs, oil – these must be domestic priorities, as they have been in the past. But, aside from security, progress on this agenda has been glacial. Could this time be different?

Perhaps. While the size of the new government might be too big to effectively steer, it is also a truly representative one – and that is something new. Formerly marginalized Sunnis, for instance, have been given more powerful positions.

The plus is that now this government speaks better for all Iraqis. The test is whether it can speak with one voice, and act on the challenges that matter most, without the prime minister having to turn into an autocrat to do it.

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