Iraqi Lawmakers End Months of Deadlock

By Nelson Hernandez and K.I. Ibrahim
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, April 23, 2006

BAGHDAD, April 22 -- Four months of political paralysis lifted on Saturday when a newly convened parliament chose seven top officials to run Iraq's first long-term government since the fall of Saddam Hussein.

In a largely ceremonial meeting at Baghdad's convention center, the parliament picked Jawad al-Maliki, an outspoken advocate for the country's Shiite Muslim majority, to serve as Iraq's prime minister for the next four years. Maliki, an experienced politician in his mid-fifties, faces the task of mending a nation nearly shattered by decades of war, dictatorship and sectarian rivalry.

"The great thing will be if I succeed in cementing national unity and regaining security, stability and services," Maliki said at a news conference. "We have been able to accomplish several things today, and with these accomplishments we shall complete the building of the new Iraq on the basis of freedom, equality and plurality for all."

The parliament voted to approve Maliki and six others nominated by leaders of Iraq's most powerful political blocs on the basis of a delicate balance among Shiites, Kurds and Sunni Arabs. President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, will retain his post in the new government, and Mahmoud al-Meshhedani, a Sunni Arab, was elected as the parliament's speaker.

Maliki has a month to form a cabinet of officials who will run such key ministries as those that control the army, the police and Iraq's critical oil sector -- a process that could be as vexing as choosing a prime minister was.

U.S. officials have said they hope a government that shares power, backed by competent, nonsectarian ministers, will calm tensions in the divided country, allowing some of the 130,000 U.S. troops in Iraq to go home.

"We believe that since the terrorists seek to promote sectarian conflict, the unity government is the right response to the challenge," Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, said at a news conference. A few moments later, he added: "I don't want to mislead you by leading you to believe that the improvement will happen instantaneously."

So far, the process of forming a government has been anything but quick. Since Iraqis voted in parliamentary elections on Dec. 15, progress had been stalled by charges of election fraud and an impasse over whether transitional Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jafari would be able to keep his post in the face of heavy opposition.

As the politicians argued, more than 1,000 Iraqis died in a wave of sectarian violence triggered by the bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra on Feb. 22. On Saturday, a roadside bomb killed five U.S. soldiers south of Baghdad, military authorities reported. Two other bombings killed seven Iraqi police officers in the capital, according to police Lt. Col. Farhan Salih.

Faced with the increasing frustration of the Iraqi public and U.S. officials, Jafari bowed to pressure and gave up his nomination to a new term on Thursday. The next day, leaders of the Shiite parties that make up the largest bloc in parliament nominated Maliki, a senior member of Jafari's Dawa party, to take his place.

After Maliki received an endorsement from the Shiite coalition's full membership on Saturday morning, the parliament approved his nomination, as well as those of Talabani and two deputy presidents and Meshhedani and two deputy speakers. Politicians from a smaller, secular political grouping received no representation, and they left their ballots blank in protest, according to Mahdi al-Hafidh, a secular politician.

Sunni and Kurdish politicians said Maliki would start with a blank slate.

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