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Last Updated: Sunday, 21 May 2006, 20:43 GMT 21:43 UK
No quick fixes for new Iraq government
By Jim Muir
BBC News, Baghdad

Scene of bomb at Baghdad market
The biggest challenge for the cabinet is to improve security

The desperate hopes of many Iraqis for deliverance from a descent into civil war and anarchy and the foreign coalition's hopes for an orderly exit strategy for their troops are all pinned on the country's first-ever national unity government.

The cabinet was approved on Saturday after five months of political wrangling following the December 2005 general elections.

By far the biggest of many challenges facing the new cabinet is security. Yet it began its life with the three top security jobs - defence, the interior, and national security - still untenanted.

So Prime Minister Nouri Maliki's first task will be to fill those crucial positions.

After presiding over the new cabinet's first meeting less than 24 hours after its inauguration, he said he believed that could be achieved within the next two or three days. Informally, the government has set itself a deadline of a week.

The outgoing transitional government, which emerged tardily from a similar period of intense wrangling last year, was sworn in with seven vacant positions, including two deputy premierships and the ministries of defence and oil.

But the posts were filled four days later. So there is no particular reason to suppose that winning agreement on the right people for the security positions will be an insuperable obstacle.

Challenges

The Maliki cabinet inherits a mountain of challenges that its transitional predecessor, headed by Ibrahim Jaafari, was signally unable to meet.

Iraqi cabinet members

Many of the problems have worsened considerably over the past year.

On the security front, the insurgency, broadly speaking, is raging at roughly the same levels as a year ago.

But the ominous and related phenomenon of sectarian violence, the cycle of provocation and reprisal, has sharpened dramatically to the point where many ordinary Iraqis fear their society may already have been irrevocably shattered, and that outright civil war may be just a step away.

The Baghdad morgue has said that violence-related deaths have been running at an average of 1,100 a month since February, when the Shia shrine at Samarra was largely destroyed by an attack blamed on Sunni insurgents.

Many of the dead are men who have been abducted and tortured before being killed - the hallmarks of sectarian revenge killings.

Sunni leaders have blamed some of the killings on Shia militias operating under cover of the Shia-run interior ministry. Public trust in the security forces has been deeply shaken, especially among Sunnis.

Displacement

Fears for their safety and sometimes direct threats have prompted thousands of Shia families to move out of mainly Sunni-populated areas, and vice versa.

Many Christians and people from other Iraqi minorities have also fled a wave of sectarian and criminal lawlessness which has driven many intellectuals and professionals to leave the country.

Pervasive corruption has also invaded many areas of the country's economic life, including the vital oil industry - the nation's lifeblood.

A recent report by the inspector-general of the Iraqi oil ministry said that billions of dollars a year were being lost to outright theft and smuggling, with official collusion, throughout the oil industry.

Services and utilities, especially electricity, and the employment situation have also deteriorated, adding to public disillusion with life and the authorities.

Why should the new government have any better chance of success than its predecessor?

Different team

Optimists are thin on the ground, but the cautiously hopeful point to some key differences.

Although he comes from the same al-Daawa stable as Mr Jaafari, Mr Maliki has already struck many observers as far more decisive, forthright and purposeful.

The national unity government he has put together is broader-based than the transitional cabinet.

Crucially, it has brought on board the biggest Sunni faction, known as the Accord Front, while others are represented in the parliament.

The hope is that active Sunni participation will help win over insurgent groups within the Sunni community where they are rooted, persuading them that they can achieve their goals by political means rather than violence.

But some Iraqi leaders are privately sceptical that the Sunni factions can "deliver" the insurgency in the same way as Sinn Fein brokered peace with the IRA in Northern Ireland.

US help

Another key difference is that the US, which adopted a hands-off approach when the transitional government was formed, has been deeply involved - through ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad - in helping weld the new administration together.

Nobody is rushing to make Iraq a proxy battlefield for their disputes
Western diplomat

That may backfire if it is perceived as outright meddling for American benefit rather than Iraq's - as some of the smaller Sunni and Shia groups who are not in the formation have charged.

But the biggest faction with which the Americans have been working is the Shia coalition, whose dominant religious parties are all politically close to Iran.

There has been little sense of sharp competition between Washington and Tehran during the government formation process, despite their political confrontation over Iran's nuclear ambitions.

While the US wields undoubted power through its massive yet vulnerable military presence, Iranian influence is extremely strong through its links with its Shia co-religionists, far less visibly.

"Iran can't be all that interested in a chaotic, unstable Iraq," one senior western diplomat said.

"It wants a friendly government in Baghdad. I think it's quite possible to have a government that's friendly to both. Nobody is rushing to make Iraq a proxy battlefield for their disputes."

The Iranian foreign minister is expected to be an early visitor to the new Baghdad administration.

Early pledges

Almost as soon as he was asked to form the new government, Mr Maliki stressed policies that are now the major planks of his administration, and are widely seen as essential if the country is to turn back from the brink of chaos.

After a first meeting of the cabinet, less than 24 hours after its inauguration, Mr Maliki said that full force would be used to quell the insurgency, but that that was not enough.

"We cannot confront terrorism only by using force," he said. "We need other measures besides security. We need national reconciliation."

"Weapons should only be allowed in the hands of the government. Militias, death squads, terrorism, killings and assassinations are anomalies and we should put an end to the militias."

Although the key security ministers have yet to be appointed, all the factions involved in the process have agreed that whoever gets the jobs must be independents not connected to any of the main groups with militias.

Practical plans already in an advanced stage include the establishment of a single unified security force to impose order on the anarchy prevailing in Baghdad.

New Oil Minister Hussein Shahristani, who has a reputation for integrity, has also pledged that his first priority will be to root out corruption and increase production in the crippled industry.

The policies and declarations may be well enough, but many Iraqis are desperate for action, not words.

At this stage, few expect overnight changes. If the corner is turned, it is still likely to be a long time before results become visible.

Even optimistic western diplomats caution against hopes for a quick fix.

"It's not a two or three-month process, or even a year," said one. "It may be five or 10 years before we can say, look, that really worked."

And that is, if it does.


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