x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Urgent decisions for Iraq's new cabinet

Iraq is taking much-needed steps to reduce the size of the cabinet, but that will reanimate all of the political wrangling that has troubled decision-making since the March 2010 elections.

One hundred mini-Saddams. In the place of one repressive overlord, Iraqis now contend with dozens of mini-tyrants who run their government departments or agencies as their own little fiefdoms.

Nowhere has the bloated bureaucracy been more apparent than in the federal cabinet. After a record-breaking eight months of deadlock, the government cobbled together in December was a messy affair. To keep Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki in office, his State of Law coalition divvied out ministerial posts to every party that would support him, resulting in an unwieldy 46-member cabinet.

At the weekend, Mr Al Maliki managed to pare 14 posts from that cabinet (mostly ministers without portfolio). More cutbacks are supposed to trim another five ministries and sack a number of senior officials.

Those decisions should streamline decision-making and, it is hoped, undermine the patronage networks that drain the public purse. That Mr Al Maliki can now afford to throw some of his former allies overboard shows that he is consolidating power. But the problems that mired horse-trading to form a new government last year persist today.

The cabinet cutbacks have been seen as a threat to Mr Al Maliki's main rival Iyad Allawi and his Iraqiyya coalition, which could further polarise parliament. But it is unlikely that Iraqiyya's cabinet posts, which include education, finance and agriculture, could be axed on the premise that they were superfluous. Instead, it would make more sense to push out members among Mr Al Maliki's former allies.

There are pressing decisions that should force the issue. On Sunday, parliament warned the government that it would force through an oil and gas law, stalled since 2007, which is seen as essential to investor confidence and an equitable split of revenues. With Admiral Mike Mullen, the US Joint Chiefs chairman, in Iraq this week, the country urgently needs to decide on the disposition of US forces after their departure deadline at the end of the year.

That decision will pit Mr Al Maliki against some of his erstwhile allies, including Muqtada Al Sadr, whose party hold 40 seats in parliament and has pledged to take up arms if the Americans stay in the country. Other groups, notably Kurdish parties, have warned of instability if US troops leave. It is high time to see if Mr Al Maliki's government can resolve these differences without offering ministry portfolios for support.