Saturday, April 22, 2006

Maliki to Form Iraq Government

By Mussab al-Khairalla and Ibon Villelabeitia
BAGHDAD (Reuters) - After months of deadlock, President Jalal Talabani asked Shi'ite politician Jawad al-Maliki on Saturday to head Iraq's first full-term government since U.S. forces toppled Saddam Hussein.

Jawad al-Maliki, a tough-talking Shi'ite leader, will face the monumental task of tackling the insurgency, easing sectarian strife, neutralizing militias and rescuing the economy in a country many say is on the verge of sectarian civil war.

"I would like to inform the brothers and sisters that we decided unanimously to endorse our dear brother Nouri Jawad al-Maliki to head the cabinet," Talabani said in parliament.

He was nominated on Friday by the Shi'ite Alliance, the largest bloc in parliament, in a compromise vote that ended four months of political deadlock.

Maliki immediately called for Iraq's militias to be merged with the armed forces. The United States wants them disarmed.

"Arms should be in the hands of the government. There is a law that calls for the merging of militias with the armed forces," Maliki said in his first policy speech after Talabani asked him to head the new government.

The United States hopes a unity government of Shi'ites, Sunni Arabs and Kurds will foster stability and enable it to start bringing home its more than 130,000 troops.

Maliki, an official in Iraq's oldest Islamist party, now has one month to form a cabinet and put it to a vote. He sought to shake off his hardline Shi'ite image and present himself as a man capable of uniting Shi'ites, Sunni Arabs and Kurds.

"We are going to form a family that will not be based on sectarian or ethnic backgrounds," he told a news conference.

The Alliance chose Maliki after its original candidate, interim Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, bowed out to end the stalemate after other parties objected to his candidature.

Parliament earlier re-elected Talabani as president. A Kurd, Talabani is the first non-Arab president of an Arab country.

Sunni Islamist Mahmoud al-Mashhadani was also elected as parliamentary speaker. A former medical officer in Saddam's army, he was jailed for joining outlawed Islamist groups. The post had been expected to go to a Sunni Arab.

Appointing officials overseeing powerful ministries, including the interior, defense and oil portfolios, will test Maliki's ability as a deal-maker.

Sunni leaders have accused the Shi'ite-run Interior Ministry of having death squads targeting Sunnis so there may be a protracted battle over that portfolio. Shi'ites deny the charge.

Washington had said the four-month political vacuum in Iraq was fuelling bloodshed.


Maliki is a tough Shi'ite from the Dawa Party who has pushed for executing Sunni insurgents who have killed Iraqis and purging the government of former members of Saddam's Baath party. He had been widely viewed as a sectarian politician, but Sunni Arab leaders said they can live with him.

The support of the Sunni leaders is vital as the insurgents draw their support from the minority community. Sunnis were dominant during Saddam Hussein's rule but the majority Shi'ite Muslims now hold sway.

"We noticed from his previous statements that he had sectarian stands. It is wrong to say we should not have fears about him. But we ask him to learn lessons from the recent past," said Hussein al-Falluja, from the main Arab Sunni bloc.

"He has many good traits. During the negotiations on drafting the constitution he stressed the unity of Iraq and the need to distribute Iraq's resources fairly."