Political deadlock ends in Iraq as MPs agree unity government

Iraqi MPs have unanimously approved a new government to be headed by incumbent Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, ending nine months of political deadlock.

They approved 29 ministers including Mr al-Maliki to form the new government. The remainder of the 42-member cabinet is made up of acting ministers who will be replaced at a later date because of ongoing disputes between coalition partners.

Iraqis voted on March 7 but no one group won a majority in the 325-member parliament, leading to nine months of political jockeying to form the new government. Although Mr al-Maliki's coalition came a close second to a Sunni-backed coalition led by former prime minister Ayad Allawi, it was Mr al-Maliki who was able to eventually patch together the necessary support needed to keep his office.

He said: "The most difficult task in the world is forming a national unity government in a country where there is a diversity of ethnic, sectarian and political backgrounds."

The new cabinet members were immediately sworn in following the nationally televised vote.

The new government includes members of all of Iraq's major political and sectarian factions, including Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds. Mr Al-Maliki alluded to the challenges in putting together a unity government in such a fractured political system where until just recently political parties were waging their battles in the streets with guns instead of in the halls of parliament.

The ministries still to be decided include the critical defence, interior and national security posts.

Those positions are closely watched in Iraq for any sign that they are being abused by one side or another across the sectarian divide as the US military prepares to withdraw from Iraq entirely in a year's time.

Mr Maliki eventually garnered enough support by merging State of Law with the Iraqi National Alliance of the radical Shia cleric Moqtada Sadr in June to form the National Alliance, and then agreeing a power-sharing deal in early November with the Kurdistan Alliance.

He had been due to unveil his 42-member cabinet on Monday, but last-minute negotiations between rival parties postponed the move. The prime minister said he had delayed proposing ministers for the three security portfolios because he needed more time to evaluate the options, having received some proposals as late as yesterday.

He also said the lack of women nominees for any of the ministries had also been a reason for the postponement.

"I need more time to choose better, and I will continue to study the candidates to be able to choose on the basis of efficiency and professionalism," he said.

"I find myself obliged to wait for the political entities to present women candidates."

Minister of State Bushra Hussein Saleh was the only woman approved yesterday, while there were four women in the previous government.

Mr Allawi told MPs that his bloc would participate fully in the government.

"We as the al-Iraqiyya bloc declare our full support for this government," he said.

"Al-Iraqiyya will play an active, productive and co-operative role."

Mr Maliki leads the Dawa party, the Shia political group that led an armed underground resistance to the secular Baathist leadership of Saddam Hussein.

Despite enduring a difficult first term at the helm of a fragile coalition, Mr Maliki has won plaudits for managing to quell the sectarian violence that plagued the country when he took office.

Key cabinet members

THE key cabinet appointments include: Prime minister Nouri Maliki (Shia Arab), deputy prime minister Hussein al-Shahristani (Shia Arab), oil minister Abdul Karim al-Luaibi (Shia Arab), finance minister Rafi al-Issawi (Sunni Arab), foreign minister Hoshyar Zebari (Kurd) and the head of the National Council for Strategic Policies is Iyad Allawi (Shia Arab).

The world's toughest task is forming a unity government in a country of diverse ethnic backgrounds.