Conflicting messages surround Iraqi cabinet announcement

AFP , Monday 20 Dec 2010

Will the new Iraqi government be announced today or not? Nuri al-Maliki's office confirms it will be revealed this afternoon while others deny it

Nuri al-Maliki (AP)

Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's plan to unveil a national unity cabinet was in disarray on Monday as political parties squabbled over posts and the timing of the announcement was put in doubt.

While Maliki had been expected to name his entire cabinet except for three sensitive posts linked to national security, politicians said that as many as half of the ministerial positions were still undecided.

The divisions come with no new cabinet having been formed since elections in March, as a Saturday deadline looms for a new government to be in place.

"The problem is that many political blocs are all asking for the same post at the same time. Because of this, there is still no agreement," said Khaled al-Assadi, an MP in Maliki's coalition who is seen as close to the premier.

"I can say that that only half the ministries have been decided so far," he added. "The three security ministries will not be presented today, and they may not present the deputy prime ministers either."

Even the time of the announcement was in doubt, with an advisor to Maliki and a government spokesman insisting it would be Monday afternoon, while two lawmakers said the announcement would be delayed until Wednesday.

"Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki will announce the cabinet this afternoon, as planned," Maliki advisor Ali Moussawi said.

Government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh also said Maliki would make the long-awaited announcement on Monday. "The government will be announced this afternoon," he told reporters.

But Hanaa Turki, an MP from Maliki's National Alliance, and Mahmud Othman, an independent Kurdish MP, earlier said the announcement would be delayed until Wednesday, amid continued squabbling over posts.

Othman also said on Monday morning that the pan-Kurdish alliance, which holds around 50 seats in the 325-member parliament, had not yet decided on who its ministers would be.

He also said the Kurdish bloc, key to the formation of the cabinet, would not take part in the government if Maliki did not approve deals the autonomous Kurdish region signed with oil companies without Baghdad's initial approval.

The contracts were signed in 2004 but the central government in Baghdad has refused to recognize them primarily because they are based on profit-sharing, rather than the per-barrel service fees which it prefers.

Earlier, politicians had said any cabinet proposed on Monday would not include the naming of new ministers of interior, defense and national security, meaning Maliki would take interim control of Iraq's security forces.

That is despite past criticism that the premier has steadily tightened his grip on power by grouping increasing responsibilities under the office of the prime minister.

Including Maliki's own position and that of his three expected deputy prime ministers, the cabinet will number 42, slightly larger than the previous one.

Maliki's State of Law coalition won 89 seats in the elections, two fewer than the Iraqiya bloc of ex-premier Iyad Allawi. But neither won enough for a parliamentary majority, resulting in an impasse that is still being resolved.

A power-sharing deal last month finally broke the deadlock, with Maliki being named prime minister-designate on November 25 and given 30 days to name his government.

According to Assadi, the National Alliance, a Maliki-led pan-Shiite coalition, will control 17 ministries, while Iraqiya will hold nine. The Kurdish bloc will retain seven, with the rest divided among smaller groupings.

In return for agreeing to the deal, Allawi demanded that pre-election bans on several of his bloc's members for alleged ties to Saddam Hussein's regime be overturned and a new statutory body be created to oversee security matters, with himself at the helm.

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