Lawmakers OK Cabinet for Iraq

7 seats unfilled

New prime minister fails to draw minority Sunnis into fledgling government

April 29, 2005|By Timothy M. Phelps | Timothy M. Phelps,NEWSDAY

WASHINGTON - The first democratic government in Iraq in over half a century was approved by parliament yesterday, but two key jobs went to U.S. opponents and the failure to fill others robbed Iraqis of any sense of unity.

Bayan Jabr, a Shiite who is described by U.S. officials as a religious hard-liner, will be Interior minister, regarded by some experts as the second most powerful job in the new government, after prime minister, because it controls internal security.

Jabr is a leading member of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, an Iranian-based opposition group that continues to have close ties to the Iranian government. He has been publicly critical of President Bush in the two years since the U.S. invasion.

According to sources inside and outside the administration, Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld intervened to try to block the group from getting the Interior Ministry post, which is in charge of the police, borders and internal intelligence.

Iran plot alleged

They were acting on U.S. intelligence that Iran had a "coherent plan" to gain control over all levels of Iraqi security by penetrating Interior and other ministries with "people on the Iranian payroll," according to a senior U.S. official.

The official said it was not clear whether that included Jabr. A former representative of the group in Syria, he has shown signs of independence from Iran in the past, the official said.

Another defeat for U.S. policy in Iraq was the surprise emergence of Ahmad Chalabi, a former Pentagon ally accused of passing U.S. intelligence to Iran, as both a deputy prime minister and acting minister of oil.

In addition, a Chalabi relative, Ali Allawi, was appointed minister of finance, giving Chalabi even more influence over the nation's money.

Seven posts in the new government remain unfilled as the new prime minister, Shiite Ibrahim al-Jaafari, notably failed for now to bring the disaffected Sunnis into his government. Most experts, and Jaafari himself, have said that doing so is key to eventually ending the Iraqi insurgency.

Another bad sign, Iraqi specialists said, was that a third of the Iraqi parliament failed to show up for the historic vote ratifying the Cabinet.

The continued wrangling makes it highly unlikely that the government will be able to agree on a constitution and hold new elections this year as scheduled, experts said.

Sunnis reacted with bitterness toward the new government yesterday and were fighting among themselves about who would best represent their interests. Most Sunnis boycotted the voting Jan. 30 or stayed away for fear of violence.

"I think this is a very big failure," said Saad Jawad, a political science professor at Baghdad University, in a telephone interview. "It's been very difficult to fill these posts. It seems they are unable to satisfy everybody, and everybody is looking after certain ministries and certain interests."

But U.S. officials were also relieved that a government, however imperfect, was formed at all.

"I join with all Americans in congratulating Iraq's new leaders and in wishing them well as they begin to serve their country in this new government," Bush said in a statement. He said the new Cabinet "will represent the unity and diversity" of the country.

A senior State Department official said the analysis of whether the new Cabinet is a success or failure depends on how high the hopes were in the beginning.

"If your objective was to get a government beholden to the Americans and stalwart in backing our positions, that's not what's going to materialize here," the official said.

"If the objective was to have an Arab government with popular support and its own sources of legitimacy that can stand up to the Iranian challenge, I think we might end up with that," he said. "There may be a lot of things we don't like, but it can still be a counterweight to Iran."

Behind the scenes

The failure to fill key top posts at the Defense, Electricity and Oil ministries is "very serious," said Amatzia Baram, an Israeli expert on Iraq. "It means the struggle behind the scenes continues."

But at least it means that most of the government can begin to function and start planning ahead, really for the first time, he said.

Meanwhile, at the Iraqi National Assembly yesterday, lawmaker Lamia Abed Khadouri Sakri's seat remained empty save for a bouquet of flowers. The legislator was shot to death by unknown assailants Wednesday afternoon outside her Baghdad home.

Sakri's home in the Banouk neighborhood was a heavily guarded place of mourning yesterday. Roads were blocked and armed men guarded the entrance. Inside the house where Sakri lived with her brother and his family, Sakri's sister lay weeping on the floor, swathed in black and surrounded by family and neighbors.

"Now I feel like an orphan," she said. "I didn't mind when my parents died, but [Sakri] was my everything."

Sakri was shot as she walked toward the door of the house after being dropped off by her sole bodyguard. According to family members, she turned back toward the property's metal gate when someone called out to her and then she was shot several times.

Newsday is a Tribune Publishing newspaper. The Los Angeles Times contributed to this article.

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