Amid deaths, Iraq reaches democracy

Leaders sworn in, but violence, political rifts remain

May 21, 2006|By LIZ SLY | LIZ SLY,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

BAGHDAD -- On a day of bickering and bloodshed, most members of Iraq's long-awaited new government were sworn in yesterday at a special session of the nation's parliament, marking the formal end of the process of Iraq's transition to democratic rule that began with the U.S. invasion in 2003.

In a sign of the rifts that persist among the factions, however, the key ministries of interior, defense and national security were left without permanent occupants, calling into question the ability of the new team to quickly win the confidence of this deeply divided nation and quell rising sectarian violence.

As the legislators gathered inside the fortified Green Zone, at least 50 people were reported killed in various incidents of violence, a reminder of the huge challenges that lie ahead for this first permanent elected government since the fall of Saddam Hussein, the one that U.S. officials are hoping will finally unite Iraqis and enable American troops to start going home.

In the worst attack, a truck bomb killed 25 day laborers in the Shiite neighborhood of Sadr City, in what appeared to be a deliberate attempt to ignite sectarian rivalries as the government was seated. Police reported finding the bodies of 21 men scattered around Baghdad, many of them shot execution-style.

Addressing Parliament after the ministers were approved by a show of hands, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki pledged to heal the sectarian rivalries behind much of the bloodletting witnessed in the five months since Iraqis voted in December's landmark elections.

"We will transform the Samarra tragedy ... into a solid determination and invincible iron will to unify the ranks of our people and isolate whoever wishes them ill will," he said, referring to the February attack on a Shiite mosque that triggered retaliatory attacks by Shiites against Sunnis and led to wider sectarian violence.

But the rifts were evident even inside the heavily guarded Convention Center, where the government mandated to lead Iraq for the next four years got off to a rocky start.

A group of Sunnis staged a noisy walkout to protest what they said was the inadequate representation of Sunnis, the once-dominant minority whose grievances have fueled the insurgency.

Outside the hall, fistfights erupted between dignitaries' bodyguards. Of the 35 ministers named by al-Maliki, 11 didn't show up for the ceremony, apparently because no one told them they had been appointed.

U.S. officials are hoping this government will succeed where others have failed because, unlike the two temporary ones seated in the past two years, it groups members of all the major political blocs, including, for the first time, democratically elected representatives of the Sunni community.

"This broadly representative unity government offers a new opportunity for progress in Iraq," President Bush said in a statement congratulating al-Maliki on the formation of his Cabinet.

The 35 announced ministries were divided among the Shiite United Iraqi Alliance, the Kurdish Alliance, the Sunni Iraqi Accord Front and the secularist Iraqi National List roughly in proportion to the percentage of seats they received in the 275-seat legislature.

As the largest bloc in Parliament, the Shiite alliance received the most ministries, including most of the important ones. Shiite leader Bayan Jabr, the controversial interior minister accused by many Sunnis of responsibility for the shadowy death squads that have terrorized Sunnis in recent months, will now head the Finance Ministry. Hussein al-Sharistani will lead the Oil Ministry, and Kurdish Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari retains his job for the third time.

Al-Maliki appointed himself interim interior minister and his Sunni deputy prime minister, Salam al-Zawba'i, as interim defense minister. The Kurdish deputy prime minister, Barham Saleh, was named interim national security minister, pending an agreement among the factions on suitable candidates for the three fiercely contested posts.

The Interior and Defense ministries, assigned to a Shiite and a Sunni in the last government, are considered particularly crucial because each controls a powerful branch of the security forces now being trained by the U.S. military to take the place of American forces. U.S. and Iraqi officials said they expected al-Maliki to name candidates to the jobs within a week.

"The fact that now Iraq has a government of national unity in which the people that represent the different communities are all there should itself make [Iraqis] begin to feel better about the prospects for Iraq," the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, told reporters.

Some legislators were skeptical.

"I don't think it's very positive news to those who fight, those who are unhappy," said Saleh al-Mutlaq, who led the walkout by about 18 Sunni legislators, including the 11 belonging to his own National Dialogue Front. "Sunnis will be very disappointed."

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