New Iraqi government named, but parliament delays vote on 2 ministers

Iraqi premier-designate Haider al-Abadi speaks at his first press conference since accepting the nomination to be Iraq’s next prime minister, in Baghdad, Iraq, Monday, Aug. 25, 2014. (AP Photo/Office of the Iraqi Prime Minister)
Iraqi premier-designate Haider al-Abadi speaks at his first press conference since accepting the nomination to be Iraq’s next prime minister, in Baghdad, Iraq, Monday, Aug. 25, 2014. (AP Photo/Office of the Iraqi Prime Minister) AP

Iraq’s parliament Monday elected Haider al Abadi, a Shiite legislator, as the country’s prime minister, endorsed his political program and approved nearly all of his proposed cabinet in a major political advance after three chaotic months that saw Islamic extremists take over as much as half the country.

But Abadi put off until next week a vote on the two top security posts after members of parliament complained that they knew little about his proposed defense minister, Khalid al Ubaidi, a Sunni who is a former military officer but about whom little else was known.

Abadi’s nominee as interior minister, Hadi al Ameri, also is likely to prove controversial. Ameri heads the Badr Organization, a Shiite militia group with close ties to Iran. When it was known as the Badr Brigades, the group fought alongside Iran in the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, and Ameri’s presence in such a sensitive position _ the Interior Ministry is responsible for Iraq’s police forces _ is likely to rankle many Sunnis.

Abadi replaces Nouri al Maliki, whose eight years as prime minister are blamed for worsening Iraq’s sectarian divide and whose outgoing government was discredited by the collapse of the Iraqi army in the face of advances to the extremist Islamic State.

Maliki had claimed the mandate to stay in power after his Shiite coalition won a plurality of votes in the May elections, but his fate was sealed by the fall of Mosul to Islamic extremists in mid-June, followed by a military rout in much of northern Iraq.

Under enormous pressure from the United States, which conditioned military intervention in Iraq on Maliki’s ouster, and as bitter criticism from Sunnis and Kurds of his sectarian policies eroded his own Shiite base, Maliki agreed last month to step down.

President Barack Obama telephoned Abadi Monday evening to congratulate him on forming a new government. “The president and the prime minister agreed on the importance of having the new government quickly take concrete steps to address the aspirations and legitimate grievances of the Iraqi people,” the White House said.

Secretary of State John Kerry praised the government formation as a “major milestone” and referred to it as a “unity government,” but he made no mention that two key positions were still unfilled. He said that Iraq’s foreign allies still expected the incoming leaders to do more to address the security vacuum and rampant sectarianism that are hindrances to the fight against the Islamic State.

Kerry said the United States wanted to see the leaders govern with the same vision and sense of purpose that allowed the political process to reach this stage far quicker than the usual post-election wrangling, which typically drags on for months.

Kerry also said the U.S. was making progress in rallying western governments to join in the battle against the Islamic State. “Almost every single country on earth has a role to play eliminating the ISIL threat and the evil it represents,” Kerry said, referring to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, a previous name for the Islamic State.

“Tonight, Iraq has a unity government,” Kerry said. “Tomorrow, I will travel to the Middle East to build the broadest possible coalition of partners around the globe.”

Unlike Maliki, who took on all the principal security posts during the past three years, alienated Sunnis and Kurds with his divisive leadership style and drew an ever-tighter circle around himself, Abadi is known as a hard-headed pragmatist and a conciliator who works well with Iraq’s other major communities -- Sunnis who were deposed from power after the ouster of Saddam Hussein and the country’s ethnic Kurds who long have competed with Iraq’s Arab population.

Abadi will need all those skills to keep Sunnis infuriated by Maliki’s mismanagement of the country and Shiites angry about Sunni tolerance of the Islamist State takeover of much of the country from each others’ throats, and to prevent Kurds from declaring independence. Steering Iraq out of its existential crisis and avert what many observers here and abroad predict will be the break up of the country into Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish states is no sure thing.

Born in 1952, Abadi was trained as an electrical engineer and received a doctorate in Britain. A member of the Shiite Dawa party along with Maliki, Abadi stayed in British exile through much of Saddam’s reign. He returned to Iraq in 2003, following the American invasion and became minister of communications under the U.S.-created Iraqi governing council.

His cabinet includes three former prime ministers and many other veteran ministers from previous governments.

Ameri, nominated for the interior ministry post, was transportation minister in the outgoing government and by virtue of his affiliation with the Badr Organization is thought to be close to Iran. Both Ameri and Badr were linked with Iranian-backed militia activity at the height of sectarian violence during the American occupation.

Iraq’s new government also includes a leading associate of firebrand Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr, Bahaa al Araji, who was elected one of three deputies to the prime minister. The others are Hoshyar Zebari, a Kurd who’d previously served as foreign ministry, and Sali Mutlaq, a Sunni.

In introducing his cabinet, Abadi said that the names for all the posts in the government had been put forward by their respective political parties.

Maliki, who’s still a member of parliament, will serve as one of three vice presidents, along with Ayad Allawi, a Shiite with strong Sunni connections who served as prime minister during the U.S.-appointed Iraqi transitional government, and Osama Nujaifi, a Sunni who was the former parliamentary speaker.

Ibrahim al Jaafari, a Shiite who served as prime minister in the interim government from 2005 to 2006, was named foreign minister and a Kurd, Roz Shawis, a former deputy prime minister, was named finance minister.

The critical post of minister of oil -- Iraq has the world’s third biggest oil reserves after Saudi Arabia and Iran -- went to Adil Abdul al Mahdi, a Shiite economist who’d served in previous government as vice president and finance minister.

Parliament approved nearly all the ministers by a show of hands, and after the voting was completed, the new cabinet took their oath of office

As is typical for the Iraqi parliament, the timing of the vote – after 9 pm Monday night – and the entire agenda were not announced in advance and appeared to be decided on the fly.

Abadi began by introducing his government program, which spoke of the immediate humanitarian crisis involving hundreds of thousands of civilians displaced by fighters of the Islamic State and the long term need of establishing a more federal state structure as demanded by Kurds and Sunnis.

He set as priorities restoring the national infrastructure, fostering the private sector, reforming banking, and even protecting non-governmental organizations “because of their important role in running the country.”

The vote for the program was well short of unanimous – 177 of the 289 present, with nearly all those opposed simply not voting – but was still a comfortable majority.

Meanwhile, the United States launched air strikes near Haditha, the scene of fighting over the weekend between Islamic State forces and Iraqi army troops and Sunni tribal fighters, and near Irbil, the capital of the largely autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government.

The U.S. Central Command said the strikes near Haditha destroyed three armed vehicles, one of which was carrying anti-aircraft artillery, and what it deescribed as “a large ISIL ground unit” near the Haditha Dam. Separately, an airstrike destroyed one ISIL Humvee near Irbil.

The latest engagements raised the number of U.S. airstrikes across Iraq to 148 since Aug. 8.

Hannah Allam in Washington and McClatchy special correspondent Hussein Kadhim in Baghdad contributed to this report.