BAGHDAD // After nine months of political deadlock, Iraq may finally have a government but, in the highly sectarian compromise deal that seated the new administration, Iraqis see little cause for optimism.
As the partial cabinet met for the first time in Baghdad yesterday, headed by Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, people in Iraq's capital were left to worry over exactly what kind of government they now have.
"Promises were made that trustworthy, competent people would be ministers this time around, but it looks as if everything has just been divided out according to sectarian interests," said Hussein Abed Mohammad, a 35 year-old high school teacher.
"No attention has been paid to forming a functioning government, it is just a political settlement of vested interests," he said. "I'm sure al Maliki will have the same problems in his next four years as he had in the last four years.
"My one real hope is that things don't get worse. I'm sure they won't get better."
Security, electricity and improving Iraq's relations with its neighbours were on top of the agenda at yesterday's cabinet meeting.
Mr al Maliki personally fills all three top security portfolios, with no agreement on who will take over as minister of defence, minister of interior and national security minister.
Although diminished in recent years, the anti-government insurgency still rages, and al Qa'eda remains a significant force in Iraq. Mr al Maliki will have to take on the militants just as US troops prepare to withdraw at the end of next year.
Electricity and other basic public services remain a major challenge as frequent power blackouts sparked violent street protests in the summer and, as yet, there is still no electricity minister.
Ties with Iraq's neighbors also remain strained. Mr al Maliki has a fragile relationship with the other Arab states, which view him as beholden to Iran. Both Turkey and Iran also continue to take military action against Kurdish rebels inside Iraq. All of Iraq's political factions accuse various outside interests - Tehran, Washington, Riyadh, Ankara and Damascus - of malevolent meddling in its internal affairs.
In addition, Iraq faces long-running issues that divide its Kurdish and Arab communities, a festering sore that has defied international medication efforts, and which the UN and US warn remains a potential flashpoint for new ethnic violence.
Mr al Maliki, entering his second term as premier, candidly acknowledged the dissatisfaction that his national unity cabinet, patched together after months of squabbling between Iraq's disparate factions, would face among the general public.
"I do not say that this government, with all its formations, satisfies its citizens' aspiration, nor the political blocs', nor my ambition, nor any other person's ambition, because it is formed ... in extraordinary circumstances," he said on Tuesday, as the administration was unveiled.
The parliamentary session, in which the cabinet was approved in a hurried show-of-hands vote that gave little chance for registering dissent, was shown live on national television. It did little to burnish the image of MPs, already viewed by many Iraqis as over-paid, under qualified and excessively self-interested.
"It all reminded me of small children arguing in the school playing ground over sweets," said Fadhil Abdullah, a resident of the southern port city, Basra. He had watched parliament's proceedings on television in a cafe, and, an avid consumer of news, had carefully followed the months of negotiations leading up to that historic moment.
"I'm not happy about it, I'm worried," he said. "I wanted to see an end to sectarianism, I wanted real reconciliation, I wanted to see progress. There was none of that, just politicians trying to get as much power as they could for themselves."
He was particularly disappointed to see Iraqiyya, led by Ayad Allawi, join the government. Bitterly critical of Mr al Maliki during and after the March election, Iraqiyya had long maintained it would rather go into opposition than take part in a Maliki-led administration.
"In the end, the lure of power was obviously too much for them," said Mr Abdullah. "They wanted to get their positions, they wanted their seats in the government. I'm disappointed they didn't choose opposition instead."
While the international community has broadly welcomed the creation of a unity administration that encompasses all the major political factions, astute local observers here bemoan the fact no significant opposition exists in parliament, to challenge government policy.
"All the parties are in government, so who opposes the government's programme, who is there to question it and to monitor its performance?" asked Ahmed al Jebanbi, a Baghdad resident who, like many people here, pays close attention to national politics.
"All of the political groups have already bought into the government's agenda, they are part of it," he said. "Rather than seeing democracy in action, we are witnessing the opposite of democracy. Democracy is dying, it has been eaten up by the politicians.
"This will be a government of problems, not solutions."
In the divided oil-rich northern city of Kirkuk, Mohammad Abdullah Jasim said he had taken no comfort from the political settlement between the factions, which allowed the government to be formed.
"We know there was a settlement but none of us know what deal was really done between al Maliki, Allawi and Kurds," he said. "I'm worried about that, the problems have not gone away, they are yet to come."
An ethnic Turkman, one of the minority communities in Kirkuk, Mr Jasim said he expected the contest for power over the city to ratchet up ahead of the scheduled withdrawal of United States troops at the end of next year.
"I'm not hopeful, in fact I've lost hope," he said.