Iraqi leaders task Maliki to be PM

news2_23_4.jpgBAGHDAD (Reuters) — Tough-talking Shiite Jawad Maliki was tasked to form a coalition government by Iraqi leaders on Saturday, ending a four-month political deadlock that many feared could pitch the country into a sectarian civil war.

“We are going to form a family that will not be based on sectarian or ethnic backgrounds,” Maliki told reporters, seeking to shed a hardline Shiite image and present himself as a prime minister able to unite Shiite Muslims, Sunni Arabs and Kurds.

But in his first policy speech, Maliki called for Iraq’s powerful militias to be merged with US-trained security forces — an explosive issue in the country because militias are tied to political parties and operate along religious lines.

“Arms should be in the hands of the government. There is a law that calls for the merging of militias with the armed forces,” said Maliki, nominated by the ruling Shiite Alliance, the largest bloc in parliament after December elections.

The United States, which had blamed the four months of political paralysis for fuelling violence, hopes a national unity government will foster stability in Iraq and enable it to start bringing home its more than 130,000 troops.

“This is a good day for Iraq. It is an important day for Iraq,” US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in a conference call with reporters in Washington. “This is someone with whom we can work.”

Five US soldiers killed

Five US soldiers were killed on Saturday in two separate roadside bomb attacks south of Baghdad, the US military said. More than 2,380 US soldiers have been killed in Iraq since the March 2003 US-led invasion to topple Saddam Hussein.

Maliki, who has 30 days to present his Cabinet to parliament, will have to tackle an insurgency that draws support from the minority Sunni community and sectarian bloodshed that has exploded since a February bombing of a Shiite shrine.

Sunnis held sway under Saddam’s rule but the majority Shiites are now the leading force in politics.

Maliki must also rescue oil-rich Iraq’s economy, which has been starved of foreign investment because of the violence. The Shiite Alliance chose Maliki — an official in Iraq’s oldest Islamist party — after its original candidate, interim Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari, bowed out.

Other parties opposed Jaafari on grounds he was too weak.

Iraqi President Jalal Talabani formally designated Maliki as prime minister after a breakthrough in negotiations on Friday and asked him to form Iraq’s first full-term government since Saddam was ousted in 2003.

Earlier, parliament re-elected Talabani as president.

Talabani, a Kurd, is the first non-Arab president of an Arab country.

Sunni Islamist Mahmoud Mashhadani was elected as parliamentary speaker. A former medical officer in Saddam’s army, he was jailed for joining outlawed Islamist groups.

US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, a driving force in pressing Iraqi politicians to end their differences, urged Maliki to choose strong and competent ministers to unite Iraq.

Test for Maliki

Appointing officials overseeing powerful ministries, including the interior, defence and oil portfolios, will test Maliki’s ability as a deal maker.

Sunni leaders have accused the Shiite-run interior ministry of condoning death squads targeting Sunnis so there may be a protracted battle over that portfolio. Shiites deny the charge.

Maliki, who spent years in exile in Iran and Syria, has pressed for the execution of Sunni insurgents who have killed Iraqis and a purge of former members of Saddam’s Baath Party from government.

He had been widely viewed as a sectarian politician, but Sunni leaders say they can live with him.

The backing of the Sunni leaders is vital because of the support insurgents draw from the minority community.

“We noticed from his previous statements that he had sectarian stands. It is wrong to say we should not have fears about him. But we ask him to learn lessons from the recent past,” said Hussein Fallujah, from the main Sunni bloc.

“He has many good traits. During the negotiations on drafting the constitution he stressed the unity of Iraq and the need to distribute Iraq’s resources fairly.” Three years after Saddam was ousted, many Iraqis have grown disillusioned with their political leaders as bombings, shootings, kidnappings and rampant crime plague the country.

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