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Seating of Iraqi government may not hasten U.S. troop withdrawal

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Even as a new prime minister was selected Saturday, parliament members said they foresee challenges before they form a competent government—a sentiment reiterated by the U.S. envoy here.

More than four months after the national elections, the withdrawal of American troops is still a distant prospect, as the government faces the task of leading a nation caught in a storm of sectarian violence.

"Any withdrawal of the American forces now will lead the country into a civil war," said the new Sunni vice president, Tariq al Hashemi. "The last American soldier will not leave the country unless we have a fully prepared army."

A twice-delayed parliamentary session confirmed the new Prime Minister Jawad al Maliki, a strong Shiite politician from the interim premier's Dawa Party and reappointed Jalal Talabani, the interim president, to the post. Al Hashemi and Adel Abdul Mehdi are the vice presidents and Mahmoud al Mashhadani, a Sunni Islamist, took his seat as speaker of the parliament.

In a news conference, Zalmay Khalilzad, U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, called the highly anticipated session an "important accomplishment," asking the international community to join the United States in supporting the Iraqi government as they faced the great challenges of "establishing security and the rule of law."

"This was a necessary step," Khalilzad said, referring to the parliamentary session, in an interview with Knight Ridder Newspapers. "There is a lot more that needs to be done."

Al Maliki has one month to present a cabinet to the parliament.

The new prime minister has a history of chastising his Sunni counterparts and is known as a strong politician, something critics said was lacking in the interim Prime Minister Ibrahim al Jaafari. Al Maliki is a member of the powerful Shiite United Iraqi Alliance, which has slightly less than half the seats in the 275-member parliament,

Sunni and Kurdish politicians have said they had to respect the nomination of the majority after fiercely opposing al Jaafari's potential second term. A largely inexperienced leader, Al Maliki impressed Khalilzad during negotiations about top positions in the government. He called him a "unifier" with the ability to compromise.

In the coming months the most pressing issues are calming the violence and the political wrangling over who will lead the ministries, said parliament members —specifically the Ministry of Interior and the Ministry of Defense.

The security forces are the key to creating a stable Iraq and setting up the exit for American troops. More than 2,100 soldiers have been killed since the war began amid growing demands from Americans to bring the troops home. U.S. military officials announced that another four U.S. soldiers were killed by a homemade bomb Saturday in Baghdad.

In Washington, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice heralded the news of a permanent government as an opportunity for stability in Iraq. But she said the lack of security in Iraq was of "great concern," and it was crucial that the ministry of interior created a non-sectarian police force.

During the interim government, the ministry of interior was seen as a vehicle of the Shiite majority's revenge against Sunnis and former Baathists.

In an uncharacteristically commanding exit speech, interim Prime Minister Ibrahim al Jaafari told the parliament to "keep your eye on every minister."

The session, which lasted about three hours Saturday, quickly confirmed names already released by the political blocs after weeks of backroom bartering.

Al Mashhadani, an Islamic activist who'd been imprisoned under Saddam Hussein's regime, made his political debut as speaker of the parliament.

Lightening the mood at the session, he drew laughter as he called parliament members Arabic terms of endearment, joked that the only black mark on his record was bribing the courts to reduce his death sentence from the former regime, promising never to do it again. His first act as speaker of the parliament would be to fix the air conditioning in the sweltering room of more than 300 people, he said.

His appointment to the post passed with only 29 votes, 110 parliament members left their ballots empty in a perceived rejection of the preordained appointment.

Saleh al Mutlak was nominated for the post but withdrew, saying the government was based on "sectarian polarization." Al Mutlak referred to the election of leadership positions, which he said had already been decided between the political blocs, based on religious sects and ethnicities. Political slates in the parliament are largely divided on sectarian and ethnic lines.

Parliament members were cautiously optimistic while acknowledging the hefty burden the new government would carry. They will be charged with halting the rampant violence, revising the constitution and returning basic services to Iraqi homes.

"The challenges we are facing are not difficult and it is possible to solve them," Alaa Makki, a Sunni parliament member, said. "The basic disagreements have been solved and we've passed the steps that we used to think were almost impossible."

On Saturday night in central Baghdad, Iraqis shot guns into the air in celebration. More than three years after the toppling of Saddam Hussein, they had a permanent government.

"Al Maliki is a strong man and the kind of man who is not afraid of making tough decisions," said Ali Abu Ahmed a supermarket owner in central Baghdad. "He will be able to run the new government."


(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondents Huda Ahmed and Mohammed al Awsy contributed to this report)


(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.