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Last Updated: Sunday, 8 May, 2005, 21:50 GMT 22:50 UK
Iraq ministers facing uphill task
By Jim Muir
BBC News, Baghdad

Prime Minister Jafaari gestures while talking to the Iraq Parliament.
Prime Minister Jafaari is confident the new constitution will go ahead on time.
After more than three months of tortuous wrangling, the Iraqis at last have their first democratically-elected coalition government of modern times.

It was a difficult birth, with protracted haggling over both policies and jobs, and constant last-minute hitches.

Even after the last six ministers were finally approved by parliament to complete the long-awaited formation, there was yet another hitch when one of the approved ministers stood down.

Hashem al-Shibli, a Sunni who was justice minister in the provisional administration which followed the downfall of Saddam Hussein, said his name had been put forward at the last minute without his consent, and he did not want to serve in the cabinet as representative of a sect rather than a political group.

It was not a huge blow to Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari, but it would mean yet another delay before he would be able to turn his undivided attention to the massive challenges facing his administration.

The most urgent of those problems has not been shy in forcing itself on his attention.

Democratic coalition politics is a novelty for the Iraqis. There is no precedent for what is happening now.

Since the near-completion of the new cabinet was first announced on 28 April, there has been a sustained upsurge of violence that has claimed more than 300 lives.

That the government has taken more than three months to assemble is not really surprising.

Democratic coalition politics is a novelty for the Iraqis. There is no precedent for what is happening now.

The political formations that emerged from the 30 January elections are new in the field. A lot of sorting-out had to be gone through, balances of power established, alliances formed or tested.

Inclusive

The Shia United Iraqi Coalition (UIA) alone, which won just over half the 275 seats in parliament, has 15 different groups under its umbrella.

They had to hammer out their own policies among themselves and choose their own leaders before they could engage in coalition talks with the Kurds - talks which also involved both complex and controversial political issues and a basic agreement on the carve-up of political positions.

Both sides also agreed that the government must be an inclusive one of national unity, not just a Shia-Kurdish coalition.

This led to further convoluted and ultimately fruitless talks with the Iraqi List bloc, headed by outgoing interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, and the Sunni factions.

While Mr Allawi's bloc could not be drawn in, the Sunnis have at last been brought on board.

But it was a fraught process, not least because nobody is quite sure who represents the Sunnis these days.

They were politically decapitated by the removal of the Baathist regime, and those groups which do exist largely boycotted the January elections.

The discovery of more than a dozen corpses, all belonging to Sunni men ... strongly suggested that sectarian revenge killings may have started to happen

However understandable they were, all the bickering, the delays and endless complications have made some Iraqis pessimistic about the chances of the country's new rulers getting a grip on the security situation, or meeting the deadline set for the completion of their primary task: the elaboration of a new constitution by 15 August.

Prime Minister Jaafari has voiced confidence that the deadline for the constitution can be met. He pointed out that parliament has already established a constitutional commission to begin work on drafting.

He has also set up a joint operations room, bringing together elements from the defence and interior ministries and the national security staff, to co-ordinate the campaign against the insurgency.

Voting for the new cabinet in the Iraqi Parliament.
The disagreements and bickering have dismayed many Iraqis.

Ministers have said they expect the public to start feeling the benefit of having the new government in place.

But it has much ground to regain. The sustained escalation launched by the insurgents since 29 April shows that they have regrouped and reorganised.

An ominous new phenomenon has also started to appear.

Concerted campaign

The discovery of more than a dozen corpses, all belonging to Sunni men, buried in shallow graves on waste ground near a heavily-Shia area of Baghdad, strongly suggested that sectarian revenge killings may have started to happen.

Unofficial reports from Iraqi sources have spoken of other vengeance killings directed at "Salafis", fundamentalist Sunni Islamists whose traditional garb and long beards make them easy to spot.

If it is indeed starting up, it is surprising it has taken so long, given the enormity of the provocation involved in the many bomb atrocities directed at Shia population and religious centres.

But it is a phenomenon that the government will have to stifle as quickly as possible. Once a spiral of sectarian vengeance killings gathers momentum, it is hard to stop.

With significant Sunnis now represented in the government, it may have a greater chance of reaching out and winning hearts and minds within the Sunni community

The government will have to work out a comprehensive security policy and strategy before it can launch a really concerted campaign against the insurgency.

That will mean resolving the debate over "de-Baathification", the purging from public office and the security forces of anyone connected with the previous regime.

Some Shia leaders have pressed for that process to be prosecuted vigorously. Many of the candidates put up by the Sunnis for the post of defence minister were vetoed after allegations of Baathist connections.

Iraqi surveys debris from roadside bomb in Bayji, Iraq.
The rebuilding of Iraq has been a protracted process.

But Sunni sources say that one of their conditions for joining the government was an easing off on the de-Baathification front. Some of the most effective special forces and commando units built up by the interior ministry have officers who served in Saddam Hussein's army.

The Sunnis also want to see the release of imprisoned suspects and an amnesty for those without blood on their hands.

While officials consider the only way to deal with the radical Islamic strand of the insurgency is outright confrontation, they hope that such gestures could begin the process of winning over some of the nationalist Iraqi elements in the Sunni-based insurgency.

With significant Sunnis now represented in the government, it may have a greater chance of reaching out and winning hearts and minds within the Sunni community.

The newly-approved Defence Minister, Saadoun al-Dulaymi, is a Sunni whose family roots are in Anbar province, a hotbed of insurgent activity.

The post-Saddam Iraqi administrations have all focussed on building up the national army and security forces as an eventual replacement for the US-led coalition troops. But it is proving a lengthy process.

Iraq's new President, Jalal Talabani, recently floated the idea of using grassroots militias to ensure security on a local basis, such as the Kurdish peshmerga and the Shia Badr Brigade. He said Sunni leaders had also offered to guarantee security in their own areas.

Prime Minister Jaafari, whose own al-Daawa party does not have such a militia, ruled out the idea again shortly after his inauguration, saying militias should join the national security forces.

But the idea may gain ground if the police and army fail to make much inroads against the insurgency.





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