Putting Iraq together again?
It will take more than the appointment of a new prime minister to put Iraq back on its feet, writes Salah Hemeid
Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki started the uphill task this week of forming a new cabinet amid renewed bickering over the allocation of government posts.
Al-Maliki's appointment as Iraq's new prime minister came after more than eight months of political wrangling, following inconclusive elections that pitched Iraqi political and sectarian groups into a fierce power struggle.
On 11 November, a Sunni Arab parliamentary speaker was selected, and Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, was chosen as the country's president for a second term. Fifteen days later, Talabani named Al-Maliki, a Shia Arab, prime minister with instructions to form a cabinet within 30 days. Should Al-Maliki not meet this deadline, he risks losing his job.
Under the power-sharing agreement reached between the country's four largest political blocs, the new government should be "a partnership government" that represents all Iraq's ethnic and political groups.
The agreement also included the formation of a Higher Policy Making Council to be headed by Al-Maliki's rival Iyad Allawi, leader of the Sunni-backed Iraqiya List, which won more seats in parliament than any other bloc in the 7 March elections.
On Saturday, Al-Maliki pledged to form a cabinet that would restore stability and national harmony and would begin the task of rebuilding the war-ravaged nation, a move that many observers believe will face daunting challenges.
"If we can't form a government within 30 days, the country will slide into a direction that only God knows," Al-Maliki said during his first news conference since being designated for the post.
"The Iraqi people have waited a long time, and if we delay further they will finally lose their patience," he said. Al-Maliki warned that any failure to form an inclusive administration could prove disastrous for the country, but added that "if anyone decides not to join [the new government], we are ready to form it without them."
Sharp differences have already emerged among the country's politicians in the run-up to the formation of the new government, as rival political parties jockey for seats and power.
On top of the challenges that Al-Maliki faces is the question of the composition, and the powers, to be give to the new Higher Policy Making Council, which Allawi has insisted should have power over major government decisions.
Al-Maliki and other Shia leaders have made it clear that the new council should not have the power to veto government decisions and expressed their view that it should work only in an advisory capacity.
Meanwhile, Allawi has insisted that if Al-Maliki does not honour the power-sharing agreement to his satisfaction he will not be part of the new government.
However, if Allawi does not join, this may well undermine the unity of his own Iraqiya List, since other members of the bloc may opt to join Al-Maliki.
On the other hand, many in the country's Sunni community will view any government that does not include Allawi as illegitimate, and were one to be formed this may well reignite the Sunni insurgency.
On Sunday, Allawi met with US ambassador to Iraq James F Jeffrey and commander of US forces General James Mattis, reports suggesting that the two American officials tried to persuade Allawi to accept a post in a government led by Al-Maliki.
US officials are keen to find a way of including Allawi in the new government, while at the same time addressing Iraqiya's demand that there be a check on what the bloc describes as Al-Maliki's otherwise authoritarian and sectarian government.
Aside from Allawi's contribution, the other main challenge facing Al-Maliki is the precise make-up of his new cabinet, amid fierce jockeying for power and reports that ministerial seats are being bought and sold.
Discussion among the country's political groups has revealed serious disputes over the allocation of ministerial positions.
Al-Maliki has said he intends to appoint some 39 ministers in an attempt to maximise cabinet seats and satisfy ambitious politicians, even if this leads to millions of dollars of extra expenses in salaries and other expenditure.
According to media reports, Al-Maliki's partners in the Shia National Alliance are demanding some 18 ministries, Al-Iraqiya is asking for 27 per cent of cabinet seats, and the Kurdish Alliance is asking for ministerial posts proportionate to the group's seats in parliament.
The country's Turkomen, Christian and other minorities are also demanding government posts, including the post of vice- president for the Turkomens.
Under the final package, the country's political and sectarian groups will also need to agree on who should be in charge of Iraq's intelligence and anti-terrorism services and appointments to the country's dozens of military and security posts.
Under the agreement, Al-Maliki will need to name independent candidates for the posts of ministers of defense and the interior, both of whom will need to be endorsed by the other blocs.
Al-Maliki has said that each party should nominate three individuals for each of the ministry posts it has been assigned, with the prime minister then having the final say on who should be appointed.
Iraqiya has already rejected this proposal outright.
While it would be tempting to hope that Al-Maliki will be able to form a cabinet within the time limits agreed upon, given the fractious nature of the political groups in Iraq a new government is unlikely to emerge before the end of the year.
Iraq has been wracked by political stalemate since the March 2010 elections, in which Allawi won 91 seats and Al-Maliki 89. As the months rolled by, both men then tried and failed to find enough seats to form a government.
Al-Maliki will now have to tread carefully as he tries to bring together Iraq's Shia, Sunni and Kurdish factions in a unity government that can overcome enduring tensions, particularly as there is a danger of a resurgence of violence in the country as American troops prepare to leave next year.
In his Saturday press conference, Al-Maliki promised that his new government would try to win the trust of the people, fight corruption and provide security and essential services.
However, many observers note that it will take more than promises and even the formation of a new government to convince disgruntled Iraqis that the politicians will now work to bring about badly needed changes.
Many believe that over the next four years Iraq is destined to relive the same kind of politics that brought the country to the verge of civil war in the seven years that followed the 2003 US-led invasion.
While Iraq might seem to have recovered from the eight- month-old political crisis that threatened to plunge it back into sectarian violence after the March elections, the continuing fragility of the situation is illustrated by the fact that the new government is likely to be a hotchpotch of greedy politicians, some of whom already have their hands stained with blood, while others have been ready to buy their seats with cash from kickbacks, bribes or extortion.
Al-Maliki has already paid a high price for bringing these sharply divided men together, having freed hundreds of members of the Mahdi Army militia, some of them sentenced to death for their role in the violence.
Now these same militiamen are demanding that they be put in charge of the country's security forces, governors' offices and even prisons.
Behind the crisis of government afflicting Iraq lies the fact that the country's political system is broken, and this will continue to stoke instability across a country already engulfed in large-scale violence.