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Sectarianism Stalls Key Iraqi Cabinet Appointments

Defence and interior ministry posts still vacant more than a year after Iraq’s parliamentary elections.
By Abeer Mohammed
  • Supporters of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki have dismissed suggestions that he rejected Sunni-supported candidates for the defence minister’s on sectarian grounds.
    Supporters of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki have dismissed suggestions that he rejected Sunni-supported candidates for the defence minister’s on sectarian grounds.

Sectarianism is continuing to paralyse Iraqi politics by holding up appointments for key security posts more than a year after the country’s parliamentary elections, officials say.

Iraq’s political blocs, largely divided along sectarian lines, took months to appoint most cabinet posts and have yet to agree on who should take charge of the defence and interior ministries, two of the most sensitive appointments

The negotiations have been dragged out by an unofficial sectarian quota system that was created to support national unity but could threaten Iraq’s fragile democracy, officials maintain.

“The current government is being formed based on a sectarian quota agreement, and this is why we have a dispute over the [security] ministries,” said Hamid al-Mutlaq, a lawmaker from the Sunni-backed Iraqiya list, an assertion made by several officials interviewed by IWPR.

Iraq’s constitution does not set aside government posts for sects or ethnic groups. However, in order to maintain the delicate balance of power between Iraq’s various communities, the president, the prime minister, the speaker and most ministerial posts are unofficially allocated along sectarian and ethnic lines.

The top posts in the defence and interior ministries have been informally assigned to Sunni and Shia candidates respectively, but the unofficial appointments system has been breaking down because Sunni and Shia politicians have been haggling over the nominations for months.

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, a Shia, has rejected at least five Sunni-supported candidates for the defence minister’s post since December, when negotiations over the ministries began. Iraqiya has rejected several Shia candidates for the interior minister, including former deputy interior minister Adnan al-Asadi, a Maliki ally.

Maliki loyalists maintain that the prime minister did not reject the candidates for defence minister on sectarian grounds, but because he considered them unqualified.

However, Hussein al-Mereibi, a lawmaker from the Shia National Alliance, said that Maliki’s decision had been interpreted as “a sectarian move that pushed Iraqiya to dismiss Maliki’s candidates” for the other security posts.

Mahma Khalil, a Kurdish parliamentarian, said, “The sectarian quota is the main reason behind the deadlock, we have to please everybody and to make a balance between the different sects and ethnicities.”

The current stand-off is the longest in Iraq’s history. The country has not had a complete cabinet since the March 2010 parliamentary elections, leaving many ministries in limbo.

Other ministerial posts were not filled until February 2011 after nine months of internal political strife.

Iraq’s unofficial appointments system stems form a power-sharing initiative that sought to draw Sunnis into government. Ibrahim al-Jafari, the first elected Iraqi premier and a hard-line Shia leader, was widely accused of marginalising and excluding Sunnis, and during his term the interior ministry was even accused of persecuting them.

When Maliki replaced Jafari in 2006, he awarded cabinet posts to Sunnis, who had had little engagement in politics after boycotting the 2005 parliamentary elections. Giving Sunnis a share of power helped defuse the sectarian bloodletting that left hundreds of thousands of Iraqis dead and displaced millions.

In August 2007, however, six Sunni ministers withdrew from Maliki’s government, demanding wider Sunni representation and a crackdown on Shia militias. They returned to their posts in late 2008 after Maliki launched a military campaign to curb armed Shia groups.

Maliki’s attempts early on in his first administration to bring together a coalition government including Sunnis, Shia, Kurds, Turkomans and other minorities was seen as a an effort to promote inclusivity. However, many politicians, including Maliki himself, say that this “national partnership” has now morphed into a system that is holding up the formation of the government.

“Partnership is another form of a sectarian quota,” Maliki said in a speech last month. “It is sectarianism in fact, but we accept it to move forward. The country’s political process has many mistakes that need to be [corrected].”

Saad al-Muttalabi, a top Maliki ally and former adviser, said choosing security ministers was “very complicated” and that the nominations “will be delayed further”.

“This won’t be solved soon,” he added.

Baghdad-based newspaper Al-Mashriq reported that parliament’s agenda for the next two weeks does not include a vote on the security ministries. Iraqiya also accused Maliki of delaying ministerial appointments this week, the Iraqi news agency Sumaria reported.

Given Iraq’s ongoing struggle to control its security, the defence and interior ministries are two of the most crucial – and powerful – institutions in Iraq.

Deputy government spokesman Tahseen al-Sheikhli said Maliki, in his role as commander-in-chief, was heading up security, which had not been affected by the vacancies.

“Security is a challenge at all times in Iraq,” he said.

Some, however, are concerned that the unfilled ministerial posts may affect the government’s ability to take over security ahead of the United States troop withdrawal in December. A caretaker minister does not have the authority, for example, to sign contracts or purchase military equipment.

“Security is not affected, but [the ministries’] ability to build up is,” Muttalabi said.

“American troops will withdraw on December 31, 2011, regardless of whether the Iraqi forces are ready or whether the ministers are in place or not.”

For many, the dispute over the security ministries raises larger questions about sectarian politics and Iraq’s fragile democracy. Mutlaq noted that continued bombings and a spate of targeted killings of officials over the past few months “were… all a result of sectarianism. When the political situation is not stable, then there will be no security”.

Mithal Alusi, a former secular legislator, said democracy and the development of a civil state in Iraq have been hindered by the “sectarian atmosphere” in politics.

The frustrations with inefficient government have sparked protests throughout Iraq, but Alusi argued that Iraqi politicians won’t change the system as long as they benefit from it.

“A gambler won’t stop playing as long as he keeps coming out ahead,” he said.

Abeer Mohammed is IWPR Iraq’s senior local editor. She is based in Baghdad. IWPR-trained journalist Basim al-Shara contributed to this report from Baghdad.

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