BAGHDAD — Under huge international and domestic pressure, Iraq swore in a new government on Monday, opening the way for an expansion of U.S. military support to fight Islamist extremists in the country.
The vote to approve a new cabinet came during a fiery late-night parliamentary session. Key positions, including those of the defense and security chiefs, were left open amid controversy over who would fill them. Now confirmed as prime minister, Haider al-Abadi said he would name candidates for those positions within a week.
The new lineup meets U.S. demands for an inclusive government involving disenfranchised Sunni and Kurdish minorities, which the Obama administration has linked to further military assistance. President Obama is expected to address the nation Wednesday to outline a broader strategy to combat militants from the brutal al-Qaeda breakaway group Islamic State.
Late Monday, he called Abadi and emphasized “the need for the United States and Iraq to continue working closely with the international community to build on recent actions to counter the threat posed by the Islamic State,” according to a White House statement.
Abadi pledged to “work with all communities in Iraq,” the statement said, and move quickly “to address the aspirations and legitimate grievances of the Iraqi people.” American officials hope that the new government will be able to bridge divides and peel away support for the al-Qaeda splinter group, which is tearing apart Iraq’s borders.
Uncertainty over whether the vote would take place continued until the last minute after Kurdish politicians withdrew from talks and flew to Sulaymaniyah in the semiautonomous north, threatening to boycott the session if their demands over budget payments and oil sales were not met.
With a 30-day deadline for Abadi to appoint a government set to expire Wednesday, the U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, Brett McGurk, and the United Nations’ Iraq envoy, Nickolay Mladenov, traveled to Sulaymaniyah to meet with senior Kurdish leaders and persuade them to participate in the government, Iraqi officials said.
But Kurdish grievances were not the only ones that boiled over.
Frictions began as soon as Monday’s session got underway as Shiite parliamentarian Mohammed Naji took to the floor to lambaste the withdrawal of Hadi al-Amiri’s name to head the Interior Ministry. Amiri, who was formerly transport minister, is the head of the Badr Brigade, a Shiite militia that has been fighting the Islamic State north of Baghdad. Sunni politicians had strongly objected to his nomination.
Though Abadi was unable to fill the interior and defense positions in time for the vote, the roles had remained vacant under the last government, with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki retaining the key security portfolios himself.
Arguments continued during the opening religious recital, with the speaker, Salim al-Jubouri, forced to interject to tell lawmakers to “respect the Koran.”
The session began with just 179 of 328 lawmakers present — nonetheless, the quorum needed to vote in a new government.
“There are a good number of parliament members here, but there are also a good number in the cafeteria,” the speaker said. “We ask you, is this why the people elected you?”
After more than an hour of sitting in the cafeteria, Kurdish lawmakers eventually joined the session. Ala Talabani, one of the Kurdish members, announced that the Kurds would join for only a three-month trial period.
The vote took place with 289 lawmakers present. Each candidate’s name was read out and voted on with a show of hands. The three Kurdish cabinet nominees were not present after their last-hour withdrawal to Sulaymaniyah but were still voted in.
Sunni politicians took the culture ministry, while Shiites filled the weightier portfolio of oil.
A major sticking point for the Kurds is almost $8 billion in oil-sharing revenue that they said has been owed to them since January, when Kurdish officials said Baghdad stopped sending revenue checks.
Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government have been locked in a years-long dispute over whether the Kurds should be able to make their own deals with oil companies and then send the proceeds to Baghdad. Amid the financial squeeze, the Kurdish government’s pesh merga fighters, who have been battling extremists from the Islamic State, have gone unpaid for months.
The Kurds were also upset that they were offered only three ministries in the current power-
sharing deal; they argued that based on their population and influence, they should receive at least five. There are also outstanding questions over how and whether the pesh merga fighters should be incorporated into the Iraqi national security forces.
Maliki was voted in as vice president Monday. Abadi shook hands with him as he entered parliament, but Maliki notably did not raise his hand to vote to support the new prime minister’s agenda — which included building institutions and fighting corruption.
The formation of a new government came as U.S. jets and drones continued airstrikes in the vicinity of the Haditha Dam. Iraqi officials said militants had been driven out of the nearby town of Barwana.
The dam is under Iraqi government control but has been under frequent attack since late June as the militants attempt to seize key infrastructure.
The U.S. Central Command has conducted 148 airstrikes across Iraq, but the Haditha offensive has marked an expansion to the western province of Anbar — the most deadly for U.S. troops during the Iraq war.
Jaffe reported from Irbil province, Iraq. Mustafa Salim in Baghdad contributed to this report.