Iraq's incoming prime minister said Wednesday he will unveil his Cabinet to parliament this weekend, the first sign that the country may finally be moving ahead with a national unity government after weeks of wrangling.
There are hopes that sharing power successfully will help heal the sectarian rift underlying the relentless wave of violence that has swept Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion three years ago and open the way for American troops to begin returning home.
But in Washington, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Wednesday that he couldn't promise that a significant number of U.S. forces would return from Iraq by year's end.
Talks were still under way on choices to head the critical ministries of interior and defense, which control the police and army, respectively. Without an eventual agreement, no resolution is possible of the basic conflict between Shiites and Sunni Arabs.
A spokesman for Prime Minister-designate Nouri al-Maliki told The Associated Press that he would present the Cabinet at a parliament session Saturday, two days ahead of deadline, with or without a decision on those two posts.
As of Wednesday, at least 2,450 members of the U.S. military have died since the beginning of the Iraq war in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.
"The government is almost completed. Only the interior and defense ministries remain," said the spokesman, Salah Abdul-Razaq. "If an agreement is not reached, the announcement will be made without these posts."
He did not elaborate, but his remarks suggested that al-Maliki, a Shiite, would appoint himself to head the two ministries until all parties agreed on the two appointees.
Parliament, officially the Council of Representatives, must approve each proposed minister by an absolute majority of all 275 members. That means not simply a majority of the members who show up for the session.
If the prime minister fails to win approval of his Cabinet, President Jalal Talabani has 15 days to designate another nominee, who will then have 30 days to form a Cabinet. The constitution does not rule out reappointing al-Maliki, in effect giving him more time to complete the process.