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Archive for Sunday, April 23, 2006

New P.M. candidate vows quick action on government

April 23, 2006

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— The Shiite hard-liner tapped as Iraq's new prime minister promised Saturday to swiftly finish building a unity government after parliament elected a top national leadership, ending months of political deadlock as the nation spiraled into chaos.

Jawad al-Maliki has 30 days to assemble a Cabinet from divided Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish parties. The most contentious question will be filling key ministries that control security forces amid demands to purge them of militias blamed for the rise in sectarian bloodshed.

Five American soldiers died Saturday in roadside bombings south of Baghdad, and Marines killed four insurgents in a gunbattle in Ramadi - clear signs of the ongoing security crisis.

After repeated delays, parliament convened Saturday in the heavily guarded Green Zone and elected a president, two vice presidents, a parliament speaker and two deputies.

President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd who won a second term, named al-Maliki as prime minister-designate, a formality after the dominant Shiite bloc replaced outgoing Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari. Sunnis and Kurds refused to accept al-Jaafari.

That laid the foundation for post-Saddam Hussein Iraq's first fully constitutional government, which Washington hopes can quell the Sunni-led insurgency and bloody Shiite-Sunni violence. That would enable the United States to begin withdrawing its 133,000 troops.

Few believe the task will be easy. It remains uncertain whether Iraqi leaders representing religiously and ethnically based parties can set aside their interests and rise to the challenge of managing a nation perched at the brink of disaster.

U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, a key player in political negotiations since elections, told reporters improvement won't be instantaneous.

New prime ministerial candidate Jawad al-Maliki, right, speaks at a news conference along with outgoing prime minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, second left Saturday April 22, 2006 in Baghdad, Iraq.  A breakthrough in months of political deadlock cleared the way Saturday for Iraq's parliament to launch the process of putting together a new government aimed at pulling the country out of its sectarian strife.

New prime ministerial candidate Jawad al-Maliki, right, speaks at a news conference along with outgoing prime minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, second left Saturday April 22, 2006 in Baghdad, Iraq. A breakthrough in months of political deadlock cleared the way Saturday for Iraq's parliament to launch the process of putting together a new government aimed at pulling the country out of its sectarian strife.

"I think that with the formation of a national unity government with a good program and with competent ministers, Iraq will be on the right trajectory," he said.

The tough-talking al-Maliki, who once managed Shiite guerrillas in Saddam's Iraq from exile in Syria, promised an inclusive government with "all components of Iraqi society."

Al-Maliki, 55, also signaled he was prepared to crack down on Sunni insurgents and Shiite militias responsible for the rise in sectarian violence that threatens to plunge the nation into civil war.

"Weapons should be only in the hands of the government," al-Maliki told reporters.

Al-Maliki's most difficult task will be assigning control of the defense and interior ministries, responsible for the army and the police. Sunnis have accused the Shiite-run Interior Ministry of tolerating death squads that target Sunni civilians. Army and police ranks are believed to be infiltrated by militias.

The current interior minister belongs to the largest Shiite party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, believed to operate a militia. U.S. officials have insisted the next minister has no ties to militias.

Another militia, the Mahdi Army, is controlled by radical anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who supported al-Jaafari for another term. Al-Sadr refuses to disband his force unless other militias are abolished and the army and police prove capable of protecting Shiites from Sunni extremists.

While politicians from all sides called for unity and an end to sectarianism in Saturday's parliament session, the differences were visible.

The new Sunni parliament speaker, Mahmoud al-Mashhadani, insisted the armed forces must be built "on the basis of national loyalty" and spoke strongly against sectarian violence - code among Sunnis for militia violence.

Then a lawmaker stood and chided him for not speaking out against terrorism - a reference to the Sunni-led insurgency.

Al-Jaafari took the podium and barked: "Your only enemy is terrorism. That is all."

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