Why Iraqis Aren't Cheering Their New Government

  • Share
  • Read Later
U.S. officials are spinning the formation of Iraq's new government as a triumph of democracy and the first step toward stabilizing the civil war-ravaged country. But Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's cabinet, sworn in Saturday after five months of bickering and brinkmanship, has been greeted with a mixture of incredulity and skepticism by many Iraqis. "All that time spent in negotiations, and they couldn't fill the most important positions," says schoolteacher Salah Ubeidi, referring to three security-related posts that have been left vacant for now. "Why should we trust them to make the important decisions that need to be made?"

U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, desperate for the creation of a "national unity" government that includes representatives of all the ethnic and sectarian groups, has declared Maliki's 37-member cabinet a giant leap forward. "With the political change that has taken place, with the emphasis on unity and reconciliation, with effective ministers, with associated activities, conditions are likely to move in the right direction and that would allow adjustments in terms of the size composition and mission of our forces," Khalilzad said. Expect that sentiment to be echoed by Bush Administration officials in Washington, where political progress is regarded as essential to allow a drawdown of U.S. troops in Iraq. Reading from the same script, Iraq's President Jalal Talabani, America's staunchest ally in Iraq, said Saturday's ceremony "provides a good omen to our people that the government will achieve for them security, stability, peace and prosperity."

But for many Iraqis, such optimism is hard to justify, especially since the new government includes several of the inept, corrupt and thoroughly discredited leaders who had made such a hash of the interim administration under the previous Prime Minister, Ibrahim Jaafari. Indeed, the most discredited of them all, former Interior Minister Bayan Jabr, has received a promotion.

During his year as Interior Minister, Jabr had become the symbol of governmental failure — and that was the charitable view. Others, especially the minority Sunnis, accused him of looking to other way as Shi'ite militias infiltrated the police force and, shielded by their uniforms, launched a campaign of kidnapping, torture and assassination of Sunnis. Jabr is himself connected to the Badr Brigades, a Shi'ite militia that was created and funded by Iran. Although he denied that death squads were at large in the police force, he failed to halt the killings, which currently run at around 1,000 a month in Baghdad alone.

In the new cabinet, Jabr has been made Finance Minister. "The message this sends to Iraqis is that incompetence is acceptable, even in the most crucial ministries," says a Western diplomat in Baghdad. "Any cabinet that has Bayan Jabr in a top position is starting with a huge credibility gap."

For Iraqis, the main talking point was Maliki's failure to secure all-party consensus on the ministries most crucial to Iraq's security — defence, interior and national security. Maliki has appointed a hitherto unknown Sunni, Salam al-Zaubai, as "interim" defense minister. Kurdish leader Barham Saleh is temporarily in charge of national security. And the Prime Minister, a Shi'ite with no previous administrative experience worth the mention, is keeping the interior portfolio to himself until, he says, a more suitable candidate can be found.

It's unclear how long the temporary ministers will serve, or how they are expected to succeed where their predecessors failed. The biggest question mark hangs over the Interior Ministry, where Maliki's main task — to reduce the influence of Shi'ite militias in the police force — will put him in conflict with his own political base. As a member of the Shi'ite alliance that has the largest bloc of seats in Parliament, Maliki is tied to the parties that control those very militias, and they won't take kindly to any crackdowns. Indeed, Maliki would not be Prime Minister without the consent of militia leader Moqtada Sadr.

Unsurprisingly, the announcement of temporary ministers for the security roles did not go down well with many Sunnis. The parliamentary faction of Sunni leader Saleh Mutlak walked out of the legislature in protest. Mutlak had told TIME earlier in the week that Maliki and other Shi'ite leaders were using the guise of "temporary ministers" as a way of creating a fait accompli. "After some weeks or months, they will say, look, the Interior Ministry is being run by a Shi'ite anyway, so let's make that permanent," he warned.

Maliki's failure to find acceptable permanent candidates for these vital positions doesn't bode well. And it makes a nonsense of the Prime Minister's promise that he will deliver "an objective timetable" for the withdrawal of U.S.-led coalition forces from Iraq.

It's worth remembering that Maliki is himself a compromise candidate — a relative unknown figure with negligible street credibility, he was picked because his party boss, former Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari, had become unacceptable to Sunni and Kurdish parties. Inside political circles, Maliki had been known as a strident Shi'ite hardliner. Since his nomination, he has struck a more conciliatory pose, talking up unity and inching away from the anti-Sunni positions he had previously defended. His reinvention has been aided by U.S. officials keen to present him as Iraq's best hope. Khalilzad has described him an a "patriot, a tough-minded leader" who has "taken tough positions against terrorists and the insurgency and Baathists."

In the next few months, Maliki will have the opportunity to follow through on those positions. But few Iraqis are holding their breath.