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Last Updated: Tuesday, 3 May, 2005, 15:39 GMT 16:39 UK
Sunni question dogs new Iraqi cabinet
By Jim Muir
BBC News, Baghdad

Iraq's first elected government in modern times, put together by new Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari, has been sworn in.

Iraq national assembly
Disagreements over key postings are holding up the new cabinet
Despite a last minute flurry of negotiations, right up to the swearing in ceremony, some key posts in the government are still vacant - most notably the oil and defence ministries.

The unwieldy 37-member cabinet took nearly three months to assemble. Yet the key issue of how to represent the country's Sunni Muslim community remains unresolved.

Amounting to something like 20% of the population, the Sunnis largely boycotted the elections, so they have only 17 deputies in the new 275-member parliament.

But both the winning factions, the Shia Muslims and the Kurds, who dominate the chamber and make up the main building blocks supporting the new government, insisted on forming a national unity government which would include significant Sunni representation.

Low status

Despite intensive talks in the closing phases of the cabinet negotiations, Mr Jaafari did not manage to reach an agreement with the Sunni groupings with which he was dealing, the Unified National Forces Front and the National Dialogue.

The Sunnis wanted at least seven ministries and a deputy premiership. The offer made to them was only one ministry short, but they complained that apart from defence, most of those offered were low-status.

More importantly, they wanted written policy commitments, especially on the issue of "de-Baathification", the purging from public employment of people associated with Saddam Hussein's regime.

Some of the factions in Mr Jaafari's Shia coalition, the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA), want to see a wholesale eradication programme.

No agreement was reached by the time Mr Jaafari felt he had to announce his cabinet.

Ghazi Yawer
A particular section of society is missing, and that really won't be in the interests of Iraq
Ghazi Yawer, Iraq Vice-President
Pressure was building up, not just from impatient and anxious Iraqis, but also from the Shia religious leadership.

American leaders also made known their concern at the delay, which many blamed for a sharp recent upsurge in insurgent violence.

So the government was announced, but bizarrely, seven cabinet posts had to be left open, mainly in the hope that the Sunnis could still be brought aboard.

Mr Jaafari will be trying to do that in the coming days.

This means that, while some of the less political ministers may be able to get on with their jobs, the government as a whole will not be able to crack ahead with tackling the massive challenges it faces: dealing with the rampant insurgency, restoring public services, and creating jobs.

Mr Jaafari's first priority will have to go to completing the government itself, including filling two key posts at the ministries of oil and defence.

The vacancy at oil, filled in a caretaker capacity by one of the new deputy prime ministers, Ahmad Chalabi, pointed to another problem holding up the cabinet formation: wrangling between the Shia factions.

The post has been allocated to the UIA, but its 15 constituent groups had not been able to agree on a candidate.

High price

The Kurds in particular had hoped that an inclusive national unity government would also bring in the bloc headed by outgoing interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, a secular Shia.

But exhaustive negotiations failed to establish enough common ground, especially between Mr Allawi's Iraqi List - which has 40 parliamentary seats - and the UIA.

The List was demanding a high price for inclusion in terms of seats and policy commitments.

Iraq Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari
Mr Jaafari is under mounting pressure to finalise appointing his new cabinet
But the failure so far to satisfy and fully include the Sunnis is the most damaging flaw in the new government's claim to be comprehensive and all-embracing.

The outgoing President, and now Vice-President, Ghazi Yawer, who acted as broker for his fellow Sunnis, was clearly unhappy and did not regard the current formation as a national unity government.

"It's become a government reflecting the election results rather than a unity government," he said.

"A particular section of society is missing, and that really won't be in the interests of Iraq."

He said he hoped that the gaps in the cabinet would soon be filled by credible, representative Sunnis.

"If it's not going to be resolved, and we'll not have our own choice, then it will be a major setback," he said.

"If they fail to make the Sunni Arabs satisfied, both in position selection and in the political roadmap that the Sunni Arabs are proposing, then I think the Sunni Arabs might withdraw their candidates."

'De-Baathification'

Agreeing on government jobs may come easier than winning policy commitments from the Shia on sensitive issues such as de-Baathification.

The fear is that without credible Sunnis in the government, it will not be able to win political ground from the insurgency within the Sunni community, where it is rooted
Sunnis fear that a deep-rooted approach to de-Baathification could alienate their community further, though they agree that those with blood on their hands should be taken to court.

They want to help win over Sunni hearts and minds by releasing many of the detainees suspected of being insurgent sympathisers, but not convicted of any crimes.

The debate will impact in many ways on the campaign against the insurgency.

The Shia have indicated they will disband special forces units, recruited partly from officers who served under Saddam Hussein to combat the insurgents.

The fear is that without credible Sunnis in the government, it will not be able to win political ground from the insurgency within the Sunni community, where it is rooted.

Iraq's relations with its largely Sunni Arab neighbours will also not be enhanced if the government is perceived as a Shia-Kurdish coalition lording it over an alienated Sunni community.

Sunni leaders have indicated they are still keen to take part. The next few days should establish whether the major coalition partners - and especially the Shia - are willing to pay the price in government posts and policies, necessary to win serious Sunni involvement.


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