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Last Updated: Sunday, 23 April 2006, 15:14 GMT 16:14 UK
Can a new government rescue Iraq?

Jim Muir
BBC News, Baghdad

More than four months after general elections for the country's first full-term parliament since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, Iraq at last has a new prime minister designate, Jawad al-Maliki.

Shia men protest in Baghdad over the bombing of Samarra's al-Askari shrine
Sectarian tension has been a catalyst for violence in Iraq
While there was relief that the deadlock over the prime ministerial position had finally been broken, everybody here is aware that a massive task lies ahead if the country is to be held together and pulled back from the brink of fragmentation and civil war.

Mr Maliki himself, and the head of the broader Shia coalition which put him forward for the post, Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, stressed just after his nomination that it was not just up to the prime minister or the president; all had to pull together if Iraq was to be saved.

But the new prime minister-designate will be the focal point of the drive to form a broad national unity government, and will have a major role in steering it once it is off the ground.

Assembling that government is the first challenge facing Mr Maliki. Under the constitution he has a month to return to parliament for endorsement of his government and premiership - though such deadlines have often gone by the board in the recent past.

In the months of political wrangling since the December elections, some of the foundations for such a government have already been laid.

JAWAD AL-MALIKI
Jawad al-Maliki speaking after his nomination
Deputy leader of the Daawa, Iraq's oldest Shia party
Served on de-Baathification committee
Served on committee drafting Iraq's constitution
Deputy speaker of the interim National Assembly
Fled Iraq for Syria in 1980s and returned after invasion

Four agreements have been reached, including one on the government's political programme, and others on the formation of national security councils to give all factions a say in security affairs.

That should mean that the task and problems are focused almost entirely on the distribution of cabinet posts.

Since the aim is to be as inclusive as possible, each of the competing factions - Sunnis, Shias, Kurds and secularists - will be vying to get the best representation.

The contest will be particularly strong for the so-called "sovereign ministries" - foreign affairs, defence, the interior, finance and oil.

Allocation of the interior ministry portfolio is expected to stir heated debate, given accusations by Sunni factions that under its Shia incumbent, it has over the past year become a cover for sectarian revenge operations and death squads run by Shia militias.

'Society torn apart'

Mr Maliki comes from the Daawa Party, a powerful Shia Islamist group which does not have its own militia. But it is politically linked to the faction headed by the radical young Shia cleric, Moqtada Sadr, whose Mehdi Army militia is accused of carrying out sectarian killings.

Shortly after his nomination, Mr Maliki pointed out that the constitution calls for militias to be merged into the official security forces.

While that may sound good on paper, the wholesale absorption of militia units without tight supervision and control could mean that militias simply operate under official cover, the existing accusation levelled at the interior ministry.

If these concerns are not met in the course of the new government's formation, it will be more difficult for it to tackle perhaps the gravest challenge facing it - the alarming spread of sectarian violence over the past three months.

An Iraqi man helps clear the rubble at Samarra's bombed al-Askari shrine
Insurgents have attacked some of Shia Islam's most important shrines

More than the months of insurgency that preceded it, the gathering sectarianism has made many Iraqis fearful that the very fabric of their society is being irreparably torn apart.

Reversing that trend is the biggest and most fateful challenge facing any new government.

Clashes in the mainly-Sunni suburb of Adhamiya in north Baghdad earlier this month between police forces and local Sunni militiamen made it look even more as though civil war were only a step away. Sunni residents saw the police as Shia invaders rather than as a neutral national security force.

The other, and closely related, massive security challenge is of course the insurgency. It also has a strong sectarian element to it, as it has always been Sunni-based and most of its victims have been Shia. There is universal agreement that it cannot be defeated by military means alone.

Although at the beginning the insurgency mainly targeted foreign coalition troops and Iraqi security forces, its sectarian content was soon dominant because of its Sunni base, the fact that Iraqi security forces are largely Shia, and because indiscriminate and highly provocative attacks were also launched on Shia population centres and sensitive religious sites.

'No compromise'

In tackling the insurgency, the new regime should be better placed than the outgoing interim administration to win over disaffected Iraqi Sunnis and to win ground away from the hardcore Islamic jihadi militants, many of whom have come from outside.
One casualty has already been the secular bloc

That is because the main Sunni political groups which boycotted the interim elections early last year did take part in the December polls.

The leader of the Iraqi Islamic Party, Tareq al-Hashemi, has already been elected Vice-President of the Republic. Another prominent Sunni Islamist, Mahmoud al-Mashhadani, was elected Speaker of Parliament.

The hope is that effective Sunni representation and involvement will help persuade at least the Iraqi nationalist strand of the insurgency that their community has a stake and a say in governing the country, isolating the Islamist extremists with whom there can be no compromise because they do not believe in democracy.

But giving priority to Sunni inclusion on a sectarian basis with an eye to undermining the insurgency may ironically give a further spin to the already increasingly sectarian nature of Iraqi politics.

Critical security

One casualty has already been the secular bloc headed by the former transitional Prime Minister, Iyad Allawi, whose share in parliament was reduced from 40 seats to 25 in the last elections because of Sunni participation.

Mr Allawi was not offered any of the top positions already allocated in the presidency or parliament. He has condemned the sectarian distribution of posts, and his Iraqi List may decide to go into opposition rather than be a very junior partner in a government dominated by both Shia and Sunni Islamists, with the Kurds providing the only secular element.

The new prime minister-designate has stressed the need to improve services and utilities, to revive the economy and combat unemployment, and to fight corruption.

Those are also major challenges. But the experience of the past three years has shown that little headway can be made in those areas in the absence of security and stability.



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