Iraq halfway toward forming a cabinet – nine months after election

More details should emerge later today. But there are indications that forming a new government -- presented as a done deal weeks ago -- still has major hurdles, which points to the country's uncertain future.

Mohammed Ameen/Reuters
Iraqi parliament speaker Osama al-Nujaifi (R) shakes hands with Iraq's Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, upon his arrival at the parliament building in Baghdad December 20.

A little news from Iraq this morning, just as a reminder that it's nine and months and counting since the last elections and a government still hasn't been formed. It turns out that the "breakthrough" deal to form a government announced over a month ago isn't yet much of a deal at all. Today, Prime Minister Nouri al--Maliki is going to release a partial cabinet list, according to his spokesman.

What posts won't be announced? The Interior Ministry, the Defense Ministry, and the National Security job – also known as the most important jobs in the government.

It also appears that fighting is going on over the jobs that are less important from the standpoint of dealing with the still simmering insurgency. The BBC quotes Iraqi politicians as saying that up to half of the cabinet posts remain undecided. That's a big number. Iraq currently has 37 cabinet-level positions (compare that to 21 in the UK), an attempt at creating more jobs to divide up in the first place.

These arguments are largely about money and the power that flows from it. Controlling the right ministry in the new Iraq creates enormous patronage opportunities and revenue-generating ability. The fight is over how big a piece of the pie Maliki will have to give up in exchange for continued political support.

The Iraqi Constitution says the cabinet must be decided by Saturday -- but that's doesn't make it as iron-clad a deadline as it might seem. The US-written constitution has been repeatedly ignored over the years, particularly surrounding government formation, It's both likely that the full cabinet won't be seated on Saturday, and that it won't matter very much.

As a reminder that Iraq remains a dangerous place, Iraqi security forces said they killed three Libyan sucide bombers planning attacks on Christian targets in the northern city of Mosul for Christmas. Iraq's ancient Christian minority has been repeatedly targeted this year, and the community is dwindling as those with the finances and contacts to leave Iraq flee the country.

"The problem is that many political blocs are all asking for the same post at the same time. Because of this, there is still no agreement," Khaled al-Assadi, a Shiite MP close to Maliki, told AFP today.

Of course, the highly sectarian nature of the post-election bargaining, with Maliki's Islamist Shiite bloc lining up with the still separatist-minded Kurds against Iraq's more secular and/or Sunni political currents, is cause for concern – and an indication that Iraq is likely to remain quite a violent, volatile place for some time to come.

All this leaves aside actually governing. There have been no indications over the past nine months that Iraq's ideological and sectarian divisions have been narrowed. The inability to make compromises over cabinet posts points to an even tougher road ahead – when legislators will confront the emotional and financially fraught issues of the ethnically divided and oil-rich city of Kirkuk, how Iraq's relationship with Iran should develop, and more general questions that touch on ethnic reconciliation.

The bloody civil war Iraq experienced in 2006-2007 may be over, but the bitterness and mistrust remain.

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