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Iraq's Incomplete Cabinet

Prepared by: Lionel Beehner
May 22, 2006

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Iraq has a new, if incomplete, government (AP). On May 22, parliamentarians, five months after being elected into office, approved the thirty-six-member cabinet of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki amid ethnic and political infighting. The three most hotly contested portfolios—defense, interior, and national security—remain unfilled. A number of members of Iraq's primary Shiite alliance, including loyalists of the Fadhila Party, withdrew from the bloc to protest what they say was an unfair political process (NYT).

This leaves the United Iraqi Alliance with less than 115 out of 250 parliamentary seats. At least fifteen Sunni members of Maliki's coalition also walked out of the negotiations to signal their disapproval of the process, explained in this new CFR Background Q&A. "Maliki is increasingly heading a minority government and heavily dependent on parties outside his own for continued survival," writes Juan Cole, a Middle East expert.

Disagreements arose over which of Iraq's three main ethnic groupings—Shiite Arabs (themselves divided between religious and secular members), Sunni Arabs, or Kurds—should get which portfolio. As it stands now, the cabinet includes seventeen members of Maliki's Shiite coalition, seven Kurds, seven Sunnis, and five secular Shiites, one ethnic Turkmen, and one Christian. Only four women were selected to cabinet slots, a drop from last year's interim government.

The Interior Ministry remains the most controversial post. Sunnis say they will boycott any candidate with ties to an ethnic militia, as was the case under the previous interior minister. Maliki, an early candidate for the portfolio, will be acting interior minister in the meantime. The challenges he faces are vividly portrayed in this New York Times investigation of the troubled efforts to train Iraq's corrupt and battered police forces.

Forming a cabinet is only the beginning, however, as a battle looms over proposals to amend the constitution. Iraq's three major ethnic groups disagree over revenue sharing, federalism, and the role of religion in Iraq's political and judicial discourse. Sensitive among Kurds is the future status of Kirkuk, an oil-rich city that is ethnically mixed but claimed by Kurds.

Continuing discord between Shiites and Sunnis also bodes ill for bringing calm to Iraq and hurts prospects of an early exit for the 130,000 U.S. forces in Iraq. As the security situation worsens, Iraqis tell the Los Angeles Times they lack faith in their new leaders, who are viewed as isolated behind the Green Zone's closely guarded walls and checkpoints. Journalist Nir Rosen, speaking recently at the Council on Foreign Relations, put it more bluntly: "I think the events in the Green Zone have always been irrelevant for what's really going on in Iraq and more of a show for us back here perhaps."

Both President Bush and Prime Minister Blair hailed the new Iraqi government yesterday. Blair, on a visit to Baghdad, says he sees a "new beginning," while Bush expects "more days of challenge and loss (LAT)."

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