Baghdad Iraq seated a freely elected government Tuesday after nine months of haggling, bringing together the main ethnic and religious groups in a fragile balance that could make it difficult to rebuild a nation devastated by war as American troops prepare for their final withdrawal.
One of the government’s first priorities will be to decide whether to ask the Obama administration to keep thousands of U.S. soldiers in Iraq after their scheduled departure in December 2011.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s new government solidifies the grip that Shiites have held on political power since Saddam Hussein’s ouster. It leaves open the question of whether the country’s disgruntled Sunni minority will play a meaningful role.
Despite tortuous negotiations that threatened to unravel the country’s tenuous democratic gains, the public face of the new government will look remarkably like the outgoing one. The prime minister, president and foreign minister will remain the same.
The outcome was a huge victory for al-Maliki, who has made more than his share of enemies as prime minister since May 2006. Parliament originally tapped al-Maliki as a compromise candidate to lead Iraq following tumultuous elections in December 2005 during the height of the war.
The new government was sworn in Tuesday immediately after the Iraqi parliament voted to approve 34 Cabinet ministers including al-Maliki. The remainder of the 44-member Cabinet is made up of acting ministers who will be replaced at a later date because of ongoing disputes among coalition partners.
President Barack Obama praised Iraq for building an inclusive coalition that he described as “a clear rejection of the efforts by extremists to spur sectarian division.”
Al-Maliki hailed what he called a unified but diverse government, the creation of which was “the most difficult task in the world.”
But even as he praised the new government, al-Maliki hinted at its weakness: the need to include all the major political factions as a way to preserve stability at the expense of efficiency.
“There were people whose parties have only one or two seats and even they were demanding a ministry,” al-Maliki said. “So I know that nobody is satisfied with me.”