Maliki vows to form Iraqi cabinet within weeks, says U.S. troops not needed past 2011

By Leila Fadel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, November 27, 2010; 7:04 PM

BAGHDAD - Newly reappointed Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki pledged Saturday to form a cabinet by mid-December, a move that would end months of government lethargy following inconclusive elections in March, and declared that Iraq would not need U.S. troops after their December 2011 withdrawal deadline.

"If we can't form the government within 30 days, the country will slide in directions only God knows about," he said during his first news conference since being formally nominated for the top government post Thursday. Maliki has 30 days from the day of his nomination to assign ministries and present a cabinet slate to parliament for endorsement. If he does not meet this deadline, he risks losing his job.

"The Iraqi people have waited a long time, and I think if we delay more than this, they will lose their patience," he said. "We have to win the trust of the people on all issues: fighting corruption, fighting terrorism, providing essential services and protecting the state."

The Shiite incumbent also said that failure to form an inclusive administration could prove disastrous for Iraq, but he added, "If anyone decides not to join, we are ready to form it without them."

The Obama administration has been pushing for a government that fairly represents all Iraq's ethnic and religious groups, wanting to ensure stability as U.S. troops prepare to leave and Washington's influence wanes. Under the terms of the bilateral security agreement, Iraq could ask that U.S. forces stay longer than the end of next year - a scenario U.S. officials appear to favor because it would allow them to continue the strong partnership they have developed with Iraqi security forces.

On Saturday, however, Maliki implied that Iraq would be just fine without U.S. military might.

"The Iraqi army, the Iraqi police and the Iraqi security services are capable of controlling the security situation, and therefore the security agreement will stay," he said, referring to the agreed-upon December 2011 withdrawal date. "I do not feel that there is a need for the presence of any other international forces to assist the Iraqis in controlling the security situation."

Maliki's nomination came after a nine-part power-sharing agreement was reached among the four largest elected political blocs. The accord includes a yet-to-be-formed council to be headed by his biggest rival, secular Shiite Ayad Allawi, who remains the biggest question mark in the potentially difficult days ahead.

Allawi has made it clear that if Maliki does not honor the power-sharing agreement to his satisfaction he will not be part of the government.

Secular and Sunni Arab Iraqis largely backed Allawi's Iraqiya bloc, which won more seats than any other bloc in the March parliamentary elections. It is unclear whether the Sunni minority would view a government that does not include Allawi as legitimate. One of Iraqiya's biggest challenges has been unity, and if Allawi opts not to accept the council leadership post, others in his bloc might nevertheless stay with Maliki, observers say.

Problems have already arisen. During the new parliament's second session on Nov. 11, in which the new speaker, Osama al-Nujaifi, and president, Jalal Talabani, were elected, most of Allawi's Iraqiya bloc walked out to protest what they called broken promises. They returned in the next session, however, and agreed to be part of the political process.

The council that Allawi would head cannot be formed until parliament approves the legislation creating it. And when it is formed, any decision it makes will require at least 80 percent consensus, a difficult task for Iraq's political groups to accomplish.

"If it doesn't have real power, we're not interested," Allawi said of the proposed council in an interview Saturday.

Maliki will have to tread carefully as he tries to fulfill the promises he has made, satisfy his political allies and form an inclusive government acceptable to his rivals. He has said that each party may nominate three of its members for each of the ministry posts it has been assigned, but that he would have the final say on those selected - a condition that Allawi, who had claimed the right to be prime minister before finally conceding, says he will not accept.

Maliki has made clear that he will proceed with or without Allawi.

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