May 20, 2006

Iraq's New Government

Iraqis watch as Prime Minister Al-Maliki announces the new government

On Saturday, May 20, the Iraqis swore in a democratically elected government. Finally. We have been waiting for this since the fall of Saddam Husayn in April 2003.

As expected, the majority Shi'a have emerged as the main power brokers in the country. Although the elections were held in December, it has taken these last almost five months to form a government acceptable to all parties.

Good news, but significant challenges lay ahead. Of course,the overriding concern of all Iraqis is security. That is closely followed by the economy, and in Iraq "economy" is synonymous with oil. Thus, the most important portfolios in the government are those that deal with security and oil - the ministries of defense, the interior, national security and oil. These were also the most contentious appointments.

Let's take a look at how prime minister Nuri Al-Maliki has addressed filling these critical positions. Since these are contentious positions, several have been filled by interim ministers.

Oil: The oil portfolio is held by nuclear scientist Husayn Ash-Sharistani. Ash-Sharistani is a fairly devout Shi'a who was imprisoned for ten years by Saddam Husayn for objecting to Iraq's nuclear weapons program in the 1980's and 1990's. Although he is a Shi'a, he is regarded as non-political and acceptable to the two other major factions, the Sunnis and the Kurds. He has his work cut out for him - Iraq's oil production is still below the pre-war level of 2.5 million barrels per day. Much of this is due to the continued attacks on the oil sector infrastructure. Again, security is the issue.

Defense: This is one of the unresolved portfolio assignments. Control of the Iraqi armed forces is a position of tremendous power. The Iraqis are wary of the military since in the past it was used to maintain the regime that oppressed them. The portfolio is temporarily held by Salam Az-Zuba'i, a Sunni. I imagine there will be pressure from the Shi'a to name a Shi'a to this post.

National Security: Barham Salih, a Kurd (and a personal friend of mine), retains this portfolio. This is more of national security advisor rather than a minister. Barham is politically savvy and is in a good position to advice the Shi'a prime minister.

Foreign Affairs: Hoshyar Az-Zabari, also a Kurd (and acquaintance of mine), retains this post. Hoshyar is a capable diplomat for the new government, is respected abroad, and is acceptable to all three factions. Good choice.

Interior: This is undoubtedly the most contentious of the ministerial positions. The Minister of the Interior (MOI) is not anything like the U.S. Department of the Interior, which oversees national lands and parks. The Iraqi MOI is responsible for internal security and oversees the police organs of the state - the border patrol, highway patrol, national police, special police, etc.. People are wary of this ministry, because, like the armed forces, it was the primary source of control under Saddam Husayn. The Sunnis are concerned that a Shi'a-dominated internal security apparatus will mean oppression for them. There are claims of MOI "death squads" extracting revenge for decades of Sunni domination and perceived mistreatment on the part of the Shi'a. For now, Al-Maliki is filling the position himself, probably as a way to get the government up and running. He will then address the sticky issue of who to appoint to this portfolio permanently.

Al-Maliki said his first priority was to address the security situation and having Iraqi security forces take the lead, allowing foreign forces to depart. He's going to have to do just that as American patience runs out and demands the drawdown of U.S. forces.