Infighting delays Iraqi government formation

BAGHDAD Mon Dec 20, 2010 7:51pm GMT

Iraqi parliament speaker Osama al-Nujaif (L) speaks with Iraq's Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki (2nd L), Iraq's President Jalal Talabani (2nd R) and former prime minister and the head of Current National Reform Ibrahim al-Jaafari (R) before a media conference in Baghdad November 23, 2010. REUTERS/Thaier al-Sudani

Iraqi parliament speaker Osama al-Nujaif (L) speaks with Iraq's Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki (2nd L), Iraq's President Jalal Talabani (2nd R) and former prime minister and the head of Current National Reform Ibrahim al-Jaafari (R) before a media conference in Baghdad November 23, 2010.

Credit: Reuters/Thaier al-Sudani

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BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq's parliament postponed a vote on a new government until Tuesday after squabbling and political manoeuvring delayed its formation.

Iraq has been in political limbo since an inconclusive election in March and Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's plan to unveil his new cabinet before parliament on Monday was derailed by fighting over the division of ministerial posts.

Parliament re-scheduled the cabinet vote for Tuesday although Maliki said late on Monday he had not made permanent choices for all the portfolios.

"Trust me, it was a very difficult task to form a government in a country like Iraq," Maliki said at a news conference.

"It was a very difficult task because you have to find a place in the government for everybody, not only for those who won but everyone who participated.

Hassan al-Sineed, a senior parliamentarian from Maliki's party, told state-run television the premier was keeping Kurdish veteran Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari in office, promoting deputy oil minister Abdul Kareem Luaibi to minister, and making prominent Sunni leader Rafie al-Esawi finance minister.

Senior officials said Maliki's latest list for cabinet posts also includes current Oil Minister Hussain al-Shahristani as deputy prime minister for energy.

Shahristani is the mastermind behind energy deals intended to propel Iraq to becoming the world's top oil producer. He sought and received assurances that he would have enough power as deputy premier to influence the country's energy affairs, a senior official said.

Some lawmakers vowed to reject any vote until the full cabinet was finalised and the horse-trading over.

"We will not vote for an incomplete government," said Amir al-Kinani, a Shi'ite lawmaker of the bloc loyal to anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.

BALANCING ACT

The final deadline to approve the cabinet is at the end of the week, and the lack of agreement highlights sectarian and ethnic divisions that plague the country, 7-1/2 years after the U.S.-led invasion that toppled Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein.

Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Centre, said Monday's delay was not surprising.

"National unity agreements are difficult even in the best of circumstances but these are far from the best of circumstances," he said. "This is really an elaborate, high-wire balancing act."

Iraqis, as well as foreign investors who want to help develop the oil reserves and rebuild the nation's war-ravaged infrastructure, are keen to see agreement on a new cabinet which they say would be a sign of returning political stability.

Ibrahim al-Sumaidaie, an Iraqi political analyst, said the wrangling had been an attempt by political parties to wrest concessions on important ministerial appointments from Maliki.

Sensitive security posts -- including interior, defence and national security -- are still undecided. Maliki said he would name some acting ministers to fill in until permanent choices were made.

"The number of the nominees are 42 for 42 posts," parliament speaker Osama al-Nujaifi said. "Maliki has fulfilled his constitutional commitments according to the constitutional deadline."

A power-sharing deal last month between Shi'ite, Sunni and Kurdish blocs put Maliki on track for a second term as prime minister. The November 10 pact returned Kurd Jalal Talabani to the presidency and made Nujaifi, a Sunni, parliament's speaker.

Former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, a secular Shi'ite whose cross-sectarian coalition won the most seats in the March 7 vote, was unable to gather enough support to secure the premiership. However, he has said he will also join the government as head of a new national strategic policy council.

Allawi's decision, announced on Sunday after weeks of wavering, could soothe worries about renewed sectarian violence.

Iraq is seeking to rebuild damaged and neglected infrastructure after decades of war and sanctions. It relies on oil for 95 percent of federal revenues and has set out ambitious targets to boost output capacity to 12 million barrels per day (bpd) over the next six or seven years from 2.5 million today.

(Additional reporting by Muhanad Mohammed, Ahmed Rasheed and Aseel Kami; Writing by Caroline Drees and Serena Chaudhry; editing by Jim Loney and Mark Trevelyan)

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