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Iraqi parliament approves new unity government

By Liz Sly and Aaron Davis
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, December 21, 2010; 12:21 PM

BAGHDAD - Iraq finally got a new national unity government Tuesday, albeit an incomplete one, ending more than nine months of paralyzing political deadlock that at times had threatened to unravel Iraq's fragile new democracy.

A special gathering of the nation's parliament endorsed Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for a second term in office, with lawmakers then voting one by one for 31 of the eventual 42 ministers who will be in his cabinet.

Although Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds were represented in the previous government, this is the first time that all the major factions have been included, lending hope that Iraq can put behind it the bitter sectarian struggles and divisive politics of the past five years.

Reconciliation was the watchword as all the leading figures who have dominated Iraqi politics since the fall of Saddam Hussein gathered in the chamber, embracing, shaking hands and congratulating one another.

Ayad Allawi, the secular Shiite leader whose mostly Sunni Iraqiya bloc narrowly beat Maliki into second place in elections in March and who had long insisted that he should be named prime minister, pledged cooperation with the new government and called for a new era of "real reconciliation."

"We should close the page of the past, and we should all work together," he said in an address to the parliamentary session. "We wish all success to this government."

In Washington, President Obama hailed the development as "a significant moment in Iraq's history " and a "major step" toward national unity.

"Yet again, the Iraqi people and their elected representatives have demonstrated their commitment to working through a democratic process to resolve their differences and shape Iraq's future," he said in a statement. "Their decision to form an inclusive partnership government is a clear rejection of the efforts by extremists to spur sectarian division."

Vice President Biden, who has been Obama's point man on Iraq, said that the country's leaders had delivered "what Iraq's people deserved and expected: an inclusive, national partnership government that reflects the results of Iraq's elections."

He said he was convinced Iraq is up to the challenges that lie ahead but added: "The United States stands ready to help and to strengthen even more the important partnership we have built."

In the previous cabinet, Sunnis controlled only a handful of junior ministries. This time around, the predominantly Sunni bloc can claim that it has a real share of power, in the form of such influential ministries as electricity and finance. Altogether, the bloc received nine ministries, and it is expecting also to take control of the powerful Defense Ministry when that post is finally announced.

In addition, one of the bloc's most controversial leaders, Saleh al-Mutlak, was awarded one of three deputy prime minister's positions. Mutlak had been one of Maliki's fiercest critics, and his disbarment from participation in the elections because of his alleged ties to the Baath Party further polarized the country.

The ban was lifted last Saturday, and Mutlak's presence on the stage alongside Maliki and the other ministers seemed to symbolize the new spirit that has taken hold among the formerly feuding political elite.

"Reconciliation is our main objective," he said as he left the hall surrounded by bodyguards. "They made mistakes, and they have corrected them."

The Sadrist faction headed by the anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr was given eight relatively junior ministries, including housing, tourism and labor. They did not get one of the deputy prime minister's slots, which they claim they had been promised, but Sadrist officials said they were holding out hope that Maliki would give them one once he names his final cabinet.

The 11 unfilled positions, including the sensitive jobs of defense, interior and national security, served as a reminder of the fierce power struggles that preceded the announcement and could yet continue beyond it. Maliki left the jobs unfilled because of ongoing disagreements among the factions.

Maliki appointed himself acting minister of interior, defense and national security, and said the three powerful positions would be filled with permanent appointees once suitable candidates have been agreed on.

slyl@washpost.com davisa@washpost.com

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