Two Cabinet Posts Yet Undecided

By Nelson Hernandez
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 20, 2006

BAGHDAD, May 19 -- Iraq's prime minister-designate was ready to present his cabinet nominees to parliament on Saturday but had not yet decided who would fill the two most important positions, aides and politicians said Friday night.

Nouri al-Maliki, who has been trying to form a government since being chosen as prime minister last month, spent much of Friday evening in last-minute talks with leaders of Iraq's major Shiite, Sunni Arab, Kurdish and secular political groups. They emerged, however, without deciding who would lead the critical Defense and Interior ministries, which control Iraq's army and police.

Despite the impasse, Maliki was going ahead, Iraqi officials said. Maliki or one of his deputies is likely to run both ministries for a week, a move that would allow him to avoid a 30-day deadline to form his cabinet and still be inaugurated by parliament, which is set to vote on Maliki and the rest of his cabinet on Saturday.

An aide to Maliki, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the delicacy of the talks, said all the other ministry positions had been decided but refused to identify who would fill them. "Tomorrow you will see them all," he said.

Others, including an aide to Ibrahim al-Jafari, the outgoing prime minister, confirmed the aide's account but were more cautious. "It all depends on what's going to happen tomorrow," said Adnan Ali al-Kadhimi, the Jafari aide. "Until the cabinet ministers are confirmed by the parliament, you can't say everything's going to go smooth. They could change their minds tomorrow morning."

Despite constant delays, U.S. and Iraqi officials have remained hopeful that a strong government that allots a fair share of power to each of the country's feuding factions will help Iraq deal with violent Shiite militias, the Sunni Arab insurgent movement, a crippled economy and an infrastructure that is in tatters.

Kadhimi said other important cabinet positions had been decided, such as oil minister, slated to go to Shiite nuclear scientist Hussain Shahristani, and finance minister, which would go to the current interior minister, Bayan Jabr. But the interior and defense posts have remained difficult to fill.

Ali al-Dabbagh, a member of the coalition of Shiite parties that won the most seats in parliament, said the Shiites had agreed to allow a group of Sunni Arab parties to choose the defense minister. But the Sunnis' nominee, a former general who served under Saddam Hussein, gave the Shiites pause.

At the same time, the Shiites were granted their choice of interior minister, but their nominee -- another former army officer, but one whom Hussein had jailed -- was unacceptable to the Sunnis.

Dabbagh suggested that the objections were last-minute attempts by rival factions to gain an advantage in the negotiations. He said several parties had members who wanted to hold a ministry simply to satisfy their egos -- "a very unhealthy sign for the political situation in Iraq," he said.

"We have a saying in Iraq: 'We have a button, and we have to find a suit for it,' " Dabbagh said.

As the negotiations went forward, at least 17 Iraqis were killed in bombings and other attacks Friday, the Associated Press reported.

In the Shiite holy city of Najaf, the situation became increasingly tense a day after police killed a local commander of the Mahdi Army, a militia run by the radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. Men in cars attacked several police checkpoints and patrols with grenades and gunfire, killing at least one officer and wounding several others. The police imposed a curfew.

[Early Saturday in Baghdad, a bomb exploded in the Shiite slum of Sadr City, killing 19 people and wounding 58 near a food stand where men gather to wait for jobs as day laborers, the AP reported.]

Special correspondents Saad Sarhan in Najaf and Saad al-Izzi in Baghdad contributed to this report.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company