BAGHDAD // Iraq's prime minister, Nouri al Maliki, was yesterday given 30 days in which to form a new government, a difficult task as political factions struggle over key ministerial posts.
Mr al Maliki will have to strike a delicate balance, as he tries to appease the various parties in his disparate national unity coalition, all of whom want control of major ministerial portfolios.
The two critical security departments - the ministry of defence and the ministry of interior - are among the most coveted, commanding the armed forces, police and intelligence services. These are expected to be put in the hands of at least nominally independent ministers, rather than given to any of the major parties because none would accept such power being given to their rivals.
Oil and finance are also of crucial significance and it seems likely that Mr al Maliki will want to ensure these ministries are headed by his closest political allies.
The Sadrists, who played a king-making role in securing the prime minister a second term of office, say they hope to head up service departments. "We do not want defence or interior," said Bahai al Arage, a senior Sadrist MP. "We want to serve the Iraqi people in the ministry of education, health, agriculture or transport."
Iraqiyya, Mr al Maliki's main rival for the premiership, has indicated it wants the foreign ministry, a post currently under Kurdish control.
Horse-trading for the dozens of ministerial portfolios is certain to be intense, as it was in 2006 when the last government was formed. During the previous administration, parties turned ministries into personal fiefdoms, using the powers of government to expand their influence, and reward their loyalists with jobs and salaries.
It was a system that did little to help establish effective bureaucracies, and there are widespread fears that the same situation will arise once again.
"Everyone is now fighting for a big slice of the cake," said Ala Allawi, an independent political analyst from Wasit. "From the beginning this process has been all about parties trying to get as much power as they can, and no one is going to just walk away from it empty handed now."
The new government is widely expected to include all the major groupings in Iraqi politics, from anti-Iranian Sunnis to pro-Iranian Shiites, as well as the Kurds, after they all finally agreed to form a national unity administration, under Mr al Maliki's leadership, earlier this month.
Figures from across the political spectrum were present yesterday when the Kurdish president, Jalal Talabani, issued the formal request for Mr al Maliki to begin the process of creating his government, In reality, that process began more than a week ago, when Mr al Maliki was nominated as prime minister but, in order to buy him more time to thrash out a deal within his divided coalition, the procedural formalities were delayed.
The problems inherent in splitting control of more than 30 different ministries among such a diverse range of supporters were underlined by the struggle inside the Middle Alliance, one of the groups backing Mr al Maliki.
It has been asked to nominate three MPs as potential ministerial candidates but, as yet, has been unable to agree on who to put forward.
"At the moment we have not all been able to decide on candidates," said Walid Aboud, an alliance member. "This is going to take time to sort out."