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Al Maliki edges closer to forming new government

Iraq inches closer to forming a new government, with prime minister Nouri al Maliki presenting a partially complete list of his cabinet to senior parliamentary officials.

Baghdad // Iraq inched closer to forming a new government yesterday, with prime minister Nouri al Maliki presenting a partially complete list of his cabinet to senior parliamentary officials.

Confusion and last-minute delays sullied what would otherwise have been a triumphant moment, after almost nine months of painful political deadlock following elections in March. Ongoing squabbles over different ministerial posts yesterday preventing the cabinet list from being put before MPs, as had been hoped.

Instead, parliament was adjourned long before the prime minister gave an incomplete list of his preferred cabinet members to Osama al Nujaifi, the parliamentary speaker, last night. Mr al Nujaifi confirmed he had finally received the nominations, and said MPs would vote on it today.

"Parliament received the programme and the names. There will be a session tomorrow for voting on the new ministers," Mr al Nujaifi told reporters in Baghdad yesterday. "Our desire is to build a strong government capable of solving the crisis of the country, and we will be proud of that."

Mr al Maliki said he was "very happy". "What has happened today is new evidence that we, as Iraqis, cannot continue our differences forever," he said.

Mr Nujaifi appeared to be satisfied that Mr al Maliki had now met a deadline to nominate a cabinet despite as many as 13 posts being filled by acting ministers. Under the Iraqi constitution, the prime minister had until Friday to name his ministers.

It is widely expected that key security posts, including the minister of defence and minister of interior, will not be filled by that date. These positions are highly sensitive and all parties appear to be in agreement that independent candidates, acceptable to all factions, must be found. Mr al Maliki looks set to take on the security portfolios until a suitable deal can be made.

No official details of the cabinet members have yet been released but, according to Ibrahim al Jafaari, a former prime minister and political ally of Mr al Maliki, the new government will see the current oil minister, Hussain al Shahristani, taking on a new role as deputy prime minister for energy. "In the cabinet formation list that is supposed to be submitted today by Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, Hussain al Shahristani is nominated as deputy prime minister for energy and Abdul Kareem Luaibi is the oil minister," Mr al Jafaari was quoted by the Reuters news agency as saying.

Mr Luaibi is currently deputy oil minister so his promotion, together with Mr al Shahristani's, to a more powerful post overseeing the entire energy sector, would seem designed to ensure continuity in the management of Iraq's vast oil wealth.

During his term as oil minister, Mr Shahristani ushered through a series of deals with international oil firms, and set a target of increasing output from 2.5 million barrels per day to 12 million barrels a day, a figure that would put Iraq on a par with Saudi Arabia, the world's current leading oil producer.

As MPs waited in Baghdad yesterday, expecting to be presented with Mr al Maliki's proposed cabinet, it soon became clear that the process of forming a government was not as far advanced as many had believed.

Some of the parties in the national unity government admitted they had not yet given Mr al Maliki the names of members they wanted to see given posts in his administration. Both the powerful Kurdish bloc and Iraqiyya, the largest single group in parliament, had, MPs said, failed to nominate their choices for cabinet positions.

But Iraq's politicians shrugged off the delays, insisting that, after long months of stalemate, another 24 hours - or four days, if necessary, before the deadline to name the cabinet expires - was not a cause for alarm.

"It's not a reason to worry if the cabinet wasn't announced or voted on today," said Suzanne Saad, an MP with the Fadila party. "It's just a matter of final touches being put to the cabinet, and if that is what it takes to make sure the right people are given the right jobs, that's not a problem."

Amir al Kinani, a MP with the Sadrist movement, insisted there were no new major disagreements brewing that would fundamentally disrupt the process of naming a government.

"These delays are slight issues, a few minor differences of opinion, not big things," he said.

That may prove optimistic however, with a potential dispute over oil deals already looming. The Kurdish bloc yesterday indicated it would not take part in the national unity government, as agreed, if Mr al Maliki failed to approve oil contracts signed by the autonomously governed Kurdish region.

These contracts have been highly controversial, with the authorities in Baghdad saying they were not concluded with government backing and are, therefore, illegitimate.

It is an indication of the political minefields that lay ahead for Iraq and Mr al Maliki, as he enters a second four-year term as premier. The dispute between Baghdad and the Kurds over oil wealth and autonomy has still to be settled, and is a potential flashpoint for ethnic violence that has thus far defied United Nations mediation efforts, and which continues to worry Washington as US forces prepare to withdraw by the end of 2011.

Mr al Maliki also faces a difficult task in keeping his coalition government together, with Iraqiyya, his principle rivals for power, also threatening to pull out of the unity administration if they are not given a major say in policy-making decisions.

nlatif@thenational.ae