By Ellen Knickmeyer and Caryle Murphy
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, April 29, 2005
BAGHDAD, April 28 -- Members of Iraq's National Assembly on Thursday approved a partial cabinet in which top posts set aside for Sunni Arabs remained unfilled, falling short of the national unity government all sides say they have been seeking in nearly three months of talks since national elections.
Lawmakers rose in an ovation after endorsing Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari's cabinet list by a show of hands. The endorsement marked the transfer of political power from Saddam Hussein's long-dominant Sunni Arab minority to a coalition of majority Shiite Arabs and ethnic Kurds.
"Today signals a remarkable turn in Iraq's political history," Jafari said at a news conference after receiving the embraces of fellow members of Iraq's new leadership. He called the creation of Iraq's first democratically elected government since the 1950s a "truly democratic exercise."
The list approved Thursday left about one-fifth of the new cabinet's 37 positions empty -- two deputy prime minister spots and the ministries of defense, oil, electricity, industry and human rights. Shiites and Kurds dominated the ministerial posts that were filled, and Sunni Arabs were named to four lower-ranking ministries, such as culture, as was one representative of Iraq's Christian minority.
Jafari, a Shiite from the religious Dawa party, will hold the Defense Ministry portfolio until a permanent minister is selected. Another Shiite, Ahmed Chalabi, was named one of four deputy prime ministers.
In addition, Chalabi won assignment as interim oil minister, cementing the former Pentagon favorite's political comeback despite a falling out with the United States and broad distrust among Iraqis. Chalabi will hold both posts until Shiites resolve a dispute over which of them should have the oil post, politicians said.
Three empty positions, including that of defense minister, have been set aside for Sunni Arabs as part of an effort to draw the disaffected minority away from the insurgency and into the political process. But on Wednesday, Shiite leaders let their rank-and-file members veto nominees put forward by the Sunnis, accusing the candidates of having ties to Hussein's Baath Party government, said Vice President Ghazi Yawar, the ranking Sunni Arab in the new government.
Sunni blocs might withdraw from the government completely if Jafari does not quickly fill the defense job with an acceptable candidate, Yawar said in an interview. Sunni politicians will wait "no more than 48 hours," he said. "It is a must."
"If we decide to win the Sunni Arab community, this is the golden opportunity, by including more Sunni Arabs," Yawar said. "If we get off on the wrong foot, we will never see the end of it."
One Sunni bloc, the National Dialogue group, said after Thursday's assembly vote that it was withdrawing the names it had submitted for cabinet posts. "Certainly, it is not a government of unity," said Saleh Mutlak, a Sunni negotiator.
The National Assembly was elected Jan. 30 with a mandate to write a constitution, then turn power over to a new government with members elected to serve full terms. Sunnis largely boycotted the vote and hold only 17 out of 275 assembly seats.
Since the elections, most government-building had taken place out of sight, in homes being remodeled or built for Iraqi officials in the U.S.-guarded Green Zone. Ordinary Iraqis and U.S. leaders had grown more impatient in the past two weeks, with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and others prodding Iraqi politicians to close the deal.
In the end, President Jalal Talabani and his two vice presidents -- Yawar and Adel Abdul Mahdi -- approved the cabinet list, as was needed ahead of the assembly vote. But Yawar said Jafari must come back to the three-member Presidency Council for approval of those picked to fill the vacant seats.
The assembly vote was 180 to 5, with 89 members absent. Lawmaker Lamia Abed Khadouri Sakri was gunned down Wednesday.
"If ours was a government of victors, then the [Shiite] alliance and the Kurdish coalition would have formed the government and gotten it over with. Nor would we have wasted those three months," Jafari told reporters outside the assembly.
Jafari intends to have the vacancies resolved by Tuesday, when he plans the cabinet's swearing-in, said Laith Kubba, a spokesman.
The cabinet will also continue discussing concerns emphasized by Sunni Arab politicians this week, Kubba said, including demands for restraint in an expected purge of Hussein-era officials, particularly from the security forces.
Chalabi is disliked by Sunni Arabs in particular for having pushed the de-Baathification of the military under the U.S.-led occupation. On Thursday, he raised the prospect of removing Baathists who had been rehired under interim prime minister Ayad Allawi, saying, "We shall do our best to rectify the situation."
"We also aim at speeding up the trial of all the criminals of the former regime, including Saddam, of course," Chalabi told reporters. "This is a people's demand. Saddam carried out murders and genocide, but the trials will be according to the laws."
Chalabi, who headed an exile group that opposed Hussein with Pentagon funding, fell out with Washington after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion over complaints he had exaggerated grounds for the U.S. offensive and had subsequently supplied information to Iran. Chalabi denies the allegations.
Approval of the government came on Hussein's 68th birthday.
Also on Thursday, a bomb was detonated in a crowded east Baghdad neighborhood as two pickup trucks carrying police drove by, killing two policemen and wounding two others, according to Haidar Hussein, a police official. Insurgents "know in this area that people are happy. They don't like to see the Iraqis happy," Hussein said.
Insurgents fired at least six mortar rounds toward a U.S. military base near Musayyib, south of Baghdad, but hit a bus station instead, killing four Iraqis and wounding 21, police Maj. Gen. Qais Hamza said.
In the capital, Lt. Col. Alaa Khalil Ibrahim, who worked in the visa section of the Interior Ministry, was shot dead on his way to work in an eastern neighborhood, police said.
The U.S. military said one American soldier was killed and four were wounded when a bomb detonated Thursday near Hawija, about 150 miles north of Baghdad, the Associated Press reported.
Special correspondents Khalid Saffar, Bassam Sebti and Naseer Nouri in Baghdad contributed to this report.