Iraq Inches Toward New Government
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
In Iraq, parliament is finally in session after eight months of political stalemate. Legislators have elected a speaker and a president and nominated a prime minister, but in many ways, the new government looks just like the old one. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, will keep his job; so will President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd. But that leaves the Sunni-dominated Iraqiya party, which got the most votes in the March 7th elections, in third place, and its members are not happy about it.
NPR's Kelly McEvers reports from Baghdad.
KELLY McEVERS: It was a brief moment of unity.
Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)
McEVERS: A prayer was said to formally open the parliamentary session. Political rivals sat side by side, even bent their heads together in moments of conference. But then, it spiraled into disagreement.
Unidentified Man #2: (Foreign language spoken)
McEVERS: In the end, many members of the predominantly-Sunni Iraqiya party walked out. At issue was what exactly would be on the parliament's agenda. Iraqiya leaders wanted to make public announcements about positions they'll be given in the new government, but other lawmakers said the session should focus on the top three posts.
Iraqiya did win one of these top posts: the position of parliament speaker. That job will be held by Osama Nujaifi, a prominent Sunni. In addition to the speaker's post, Iraqiya has been promised a handful of key Cabinet posts. Iraqiya member Faleh al Naqib says this was better than not participating in government at all.
Mr. FALEH AL NAQIB (Iraqiya Party): It's a balance. I mean, we haven't got a hundred percent of what we want, but at least 50 to 40 percent. We cannot say we have got everything we want.
McEVERS: The concern for many of Iraq's Sunni allies and for the U.S. was that a government without major representation by the Sunnis could have renewed sectarian unrest in a country that just a few years ago erupted in civil war. That's why another concession to the Sunnis, officials say, will be the creation of a new National Council on Higher Policy. The plan was first put forth by the Obama administration as a way to check the prime minister's powers.
Officials say the head of the Iraqiya party, Ayad Allawi, has agreed to lead the new council, which will oversee major decisions on the economy, resources and foreign policy. Allawi for months had pushed for the prime minister's job. He led today's walkout in part because parliament refused to outline the role of the new council. Earlier, before the session, government spokesman Ali Dabbagh gave some examples of the types of questions the new council would tackle.
Dr. ALI DABBAGH (Government of Iraq Spokesman): (Through Translator) Is it in our interest, for instance, to allow Iran to extend a pipeline through our territories? Do we have a good relationship with Iran, or do we not have a good relationship with Iran? Who would answer those questions? Those would be answered by the council, and this policy would be binding on the state.
McEVERS: With the council, analysts here say, the Americans were successful in their pursuit of an inclusive power-sharing arrangement. But in terms of the ruling coalition, analysts say, the Iranians have prevailed because Maliki is now allied with his onetime rival, the anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
In an earlier interview with NPR, the Iranian ambassador to Iraq stressed that Shiite unity was crucial to Iran, which is also largely Shiite.
Mr. HASSAN KAZEMI QOMI (Iranian Ambassador to Iraq): (Through Translator) It's very clear for us, well, if all the Shiites were united something - it will be good, according to our opinion, but it doesn't mean that there are no points of disagreement or there are no problems among them.
McEVERS: Today, these points of disagreement persisted not among Shiites but between Shiites and Sunnis. Now that the top three jobs have been filled, though, officials are well on their way to forming the long-awaited government.
Kelly McEvers, NPR News, Baghdad.
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