BAGHDAD, Iraq – Iraqi legislators applauded and exchanged congratulatory kisses after finally approving a partial Cabinet Thursday, even though political haggling left some key spots vacant three months after Iraqis risked their lives to vote in national elections.
The nearly unanimous national assembly vote ended a deadlock that had undermined the credibility of the nation’s first elected government since the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime. Even the announcement ceremony was colored by ethnic and religious tension, showing that the new leaders were far from the model of Middle Eastern democracy that the Bush administration envisioned.
The seven still-undecided spots included the defense minister, the post crucial to fighting Iraq’s deadly insurgency, and the oil minister. Wrangling over those positions continued Thursday among the dominant Shiite coalition, the powerful Kurdish minority and Sunni Arabs who complained that they were bypassed. Prime Minister-designate Ibrahim al-Jaafari, a Shiite, said the vacancies would be filled within days, with a formal handover ceremony soon after.
The divisions that stalled the formation of a government remained evident in assembly members’ reactions after all but five of those present voted to approve al-Jaafari’s picks. Kurdish members cheered and Shiite lawmakers burst into religious chants, while disgruntled Sunnis and Christians delivered angry speeches.
“This is the first step in building the new Iraq,” al-Jaafari said. “The main thing to keep in mind is that no one will be excluded. Whether in the Cabinet or not, all sides will have the right to participate in the political process.”
Detractors accused al-Jaafari of being disingenuous. Minority groups complained that they weren’t consulted or included in negotiations. Some complained that the vote was called before they had time to air their concerns about candidates before the assembly. Other griped that the vote wasn’t representative because a full third of the assembly was absent.
Among the most visibly angry was former President Ghazi al-Yawer, an affluent, Western-educated Sunni Arab tribesman who complained that Shiite leaders were trying to force weak Sunni candidates with no constituencies into the Cabinet. Alternate candidates proposed by a Sunni bloc last week were rejected for having ties to Saddam’s former regime. The bickering is part of the reason the defense and human rights ministries – posts promised to Sunnis – are unfilled, lawmakers said.
“This government was formed on the basis of ethnic and sectarian favoritism,” al-Yawer said outside the assembly meeting. “We were expecting this to be a real, unified government, but so far we haven’t see that kind of government.”
Al-Jaafari’s Cabinet will comprise 17 Shiite Arabs, eight Kurds, six Sunni Arabs and one Christian – a fragile balance of power reached only after weeks of bitter talks.
Fighting within the United Iraqi Alliance, the mostly Shiite bloc that swept the elections in January was behind the delay in naming an oil minister.
Even though the alliance holds a majority of seats, it was forced into compromises – with the newly powerful Kurds and with the Bush administration pressuring it from Washington.