Iraqis find hope for stability

Legislature meets

premier nominated


BAGHDAD, Iraq -- With a hint of hope and more than a bit of relief, Iraq's Parliament finally met yesterday to endorse a deal among rival factions to name a prime minister and get their first permanent government of the post-Saddam Hussein era off the ground.

The 266 legislators who met in a sweltering Baghdad convention center ended a four-month wait that followed national elections in December. They distributed top political jobs, including the presidency and the speaker of Parliament, among Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish parties.

Incumbent President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd who was returned to office, then nominated Jawad al-Maliki, a Shiite political activist and former exile, as prime minister.

"We are working for the sake of a national unity government," said al-Maliki, who emerged as the likely choice Friday after his Dawa Party ally Ibrahim al-Jaafari stepped aside. "All the different groups that are in government must have the right to participate in making decisions."

Al-Maliki has 30 days to form a Cabinet that meets the Parliament's approval.

The breakthrough produced celebratory gunfire and fireworks in parts of the capital. Iraqis appeared to be comforted that the wait for a stable political leadership might be ending.

The political vacuum has contributed to a sharp escalation in targeted assassinations and intimidation across the country, pushing many Iraqis deeper into the embrace of their own religious or ethnic communities. Many of those with means have left the country altogether.

On a visit to California, President Bush said that the decisions represented an important milestone for Iraqis.

The new leadership represents Iraq's diversity, Bush said: "The Iraqi people have rejected the terrorists' efforts to divide them, and they have chosen the path of unity for their free nation."

He called on the new government "to deploy the growing strength of the Iraqi security forces to defeat the terrorists and insurgents and establish control over the militias."

Among the challenges facing al-Maliki are appeasing competing factions that covet key positions such as those directing the country's security apparatus and guarding its wealth.

He must crack down on rampant corruption, restore neglected services and crumbling infrastructure and find a way to restart an economy in which thousands of young men are unemployed.

The new government will also have to find a formula to share the country's oil wealth that satisfies the desire of Kurds and Shiites in oil-rich areas to move further away from central government's authority.

But above all, Iraq's leaders must regain the trust of a traumatized population that has turned out to vote three times since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion and now blames the politicians they elected for failing to steady the country.

In interviews around the capital, Iraqis said their main wish was to feel safer on their own streets. The government's credibility depends on whether it can overcome internal clashes of personality and ideology to establish security.

"If they solve their personal conflicts and look out for the interests of the country, if the new government would actually put their efforts toward maintaining national unity, then nothing will be impossible," said Hussein Kafaji, a 52-year-old retired civil servant in Baghdad.

But al-Maliki's every decision will be fraught with political risk, carrying the potential to alienate key constituencies - some heavily armed.

That challenge was underscored by his first declaration after being named prime minister: He insisted that militias be incorporated into Iraq's authorized security forces. Many Iraqis view such militias as a primary cause for the instability rocking the nation. But they also make up much of the new prime minister's political base.

"Arms should be in the hand of the government," al-Maliki said, noting that Iraq has a law calling for "the merging of militias with the armed forces."

Politicians taking the podium yesterday under the gaze of a national TV audience pledged to serve all Iraqis rather than emphasizing their sectarian or ethnic interests.

"Iraq is made up of Kurds, Sunni, Shiites and Turkmen," Mahmoud al-Mashhadani, a Sunni Arab newly elected speaker of the Parliament, said in an emotional speech that recounted his years of jail, exile and suffering under Hussein's dictatorship. "We must face the reality that there is sectarian tension. We must eliminate it. And we will, during the next four years."

U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, who has been a dominant figure in the talks that led to replacing al-Jaafari, said the Iraqis weren't just forming a government, but learning to put aside decades of mistrust among the country's communities.

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