BAGHDAD – Incumbent Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki cemented his grip on power Thursday, bringing an end to nearly nine months of political deadlock after he was asked to form the next government.
He now faces the daunting task of bringing together Iraq’s Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish factions in a government that can overcome enduring tensions as the country struggles to develop its economy and prevent a resurgence of violence as the last American troops are due to leave by the end of next year.
The long-awaited request from President Jalal Talabani sets in motion a 30-day timeline during which al-Maliki must pick his Cabinet. Al-Maliki, known more for his ability to alienate than unify, said he was aware of the challenges ahead.
“I call upon the great Iraqi people from all sects, religions and ethnicities and I call upon my brothers the politicians to work to overcome all differences,” the prime minister-designate said during the ceremony at the president’s palace.
The new government is expected to include all the major factions, including the Kurds, Shiite political parties aligned with Iran and a Sunni-backed bloc that believes it should have been the one leading the next government.
The president’s request Thursday was largely a formality following Talabani’s re-election on Nov. 11. Talabani, a Kurd, then had 15 days in which to formally extend the offer and start the 30-day clock.
The announcement underscores what has been a stunning comeback for al-Maliki, whose State of Law coalition came in a close second in the March 7 election to the Sunni-backed bloc led by former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi. But neither bloc gained the 163-seat majority necessary to govern, leading to an intensive period of political jockeying.
A key question will be who gets to control the security ministries – interior and defense. Haider al-Abadi, a Shiite lawmaker and an al-Maliki ally, said those posts were expected to go to independent politicians not affiliated with any of the main political blocs. Such a move would avoid any risk of using the powerful ministries to settle feuds.
The Kurds, meanwhile are pushing to hold on to the foreign ministry, while Allawi’s Sunni-backed Iraqiya list has demanded the oil ministry.