BAGHDAD, Iraq—Iraqi legislators approved six Cabinet nominees on Sunday, but the last-minute withdrawal of a Sunni Arab candidate crushed hopes that Iraq would finally have a complete government more than three months after voters risked their lives in the country's historic elections.
The Iraqi National Assembly handed four Cabinet positions to the country's disaffected Sunni minority: defense, human rights, minerals and industry, and a deputy prime minister slot.
The move, intended to bring Sunnis into the government and ease sectarian tension, appeared to backfire. The would-be human rights minister promptly declined the post, and detractors immediately started criticizing the other nominees.
The resulting discord highlighted divisions with the Sunni community, as well as the difficulty of finding Sunnis acceptable to both Sunni and Shiite Muslim political leaders. It also suggests the huge difficulties of bringing the nation together under the current government, which is split along ethnic lines.
Hashim al Shibli, a Sunni Arab attorney who was justice minister during the first transitional government, said he resented sectarian quotas and would not serve as human rights minister because he felt the position would make him a token. He added that he was not included in negotiations and only found out about his nomination from news agencies.
"I do not have any relation with any Sunni factions," al Shibli said in a phone interview. "They considered me as representative of the Sunnis, but I reject this. I represent all the factions of Iraq. I can't speak for a specific sect."
Former caretaker President and current Vice President Ghazi al Yawar, a Sunni, recommended al Shibli to government negotiators after they rejected several other Sunni candidates based on alleged ties to Saddam Hussein's former Baath Party, said Ali al Dabagh, of the United Iraqi Alliance. The Alliance is the powerful Shiite coalition that dominates the new government, along with the influential Kurdish minority. Sunni Arabs mostly stayed away from the parliamentary elections in January.
Al Dabagh said the nominee was fully aware of the offer and that he'd accepted the post at a lunch with al Yawar and the other Sunni nominees the previous day.
"Sheikh Yawar congratulated him and Shibli didn't make any objection to the position," al Dabagh said. "He was informed."
Shibli's withdrawal sends Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari back to the drawing board to fill the human rights vacancy. The Shiite Muslim premier set aside seven Cabinet positions for Sunni Arabs, but talks deadlocked as rival Sunni groups vied over which boasted the largest constituencies and which had the best inroads into the insurgency, one of the key reasons Shiites are keen to include Sunnis in the government.
Another obstacle to filling the vacancies was the Shiite contingent's staunch disapproval of any candidate who was a high-ranking former Baathist.
A Sunni Arab bloc known as the Iraqi National Dialogue Committee led the Sunni side of negotiations until talks broke down with Shiite officials who rejected at least seven of the group's candidates. Only one of the group's nominees—Abed Mutlak al Jubouri for deputy prime minister—was approved Sunday. Members of the group dismissed the other Sunnis as political pawns with no street credibility.
Some Sunni and Shiite politicians issued harsh rejections of the candidates and said they were surprised the nominees had been approved by a majority of the National Assembly.
The most controversial Sunni Arab ministers-designate:
_ Defense Minister Saadoun al Dulaimi is a British-educated sociologist who conducted the first public opinion polls in Iraq after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. Shiite critics said that he'd been part of Saddam's London intelligence apparatus, and pointed out his service as a lieutenant colonel under Saddam. Supporters said he left the Baath Party in the mid-1980s and was a vocal member of opposition groups during his exile in Saudi Arabia and London.
_ Deputy Prime Minister Abed Mutlak al Jubouri is a military expert from a prominent Sunni tribe. Shiite politicians said al Jubouri's son was a suspected insurgent who died while trying to plant a land mine. Al Jubouri also was a division commander in Saddam's elite Republican Guards—a detail omitted from his government-issued biography.
Fawaz al Jarba, a Sunni Arab lawmaker who withdrew from the Shiite-dominated coalition after complaining his views were marginalized, said popular Sunni candidates were dismissed because they would have questioned the new government's domination by religious Shiite Muslims.
"They do not represent the Arab Sunni," al Jarba said. "I don't mean that all the Alliance members are sectarians, but SCIRI and Dawa are the ones making decisions without consulting anyone."
Al Jarba was referring to the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq and the Dawa Party, led by al Jaafari. The two Shiite factions are the backbone of the United Iraqi Alliance.
Iraqi legislators also approved two Shiites for the Cabinet: Ibrahim Bahr al Uloum as oil minister and Mohsin Shlash as electricity minister.
In a sign of the divisions within the new government, 120 legislators stayed away from the vote; 112 of the 155 present voted to approve the nominees.
(This story was reported by Knight Ridder special correspondents Shatha al Awsy, Mohammed al Awsy, Alaa al Baldawy, Huda Ahmed and Yasser Salihee.)
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.