Maliki eyes deal on unity government as bombs kill 10

BAGHDAD (Reuters) — Iraq’s political parties inched closer to sealing a deal on a unity government as Prime Minister-designate Nuri Maliki sketched out the sectarian balance among parliamentary blocs, officials said on Monday.

A car bomb killed five civilians near a courthouse in western Baghdad’s Karkh district and in the centre of the capital a roadside bomb killed five civilians and wounded eight.

The United States hopes the formation of a broad-based government will help quell a Sunni Arab insurgency and allow it to begin withdrawing its 133,000 troops from Iraq.

The Pentagon said on Monday it was putting off next month’s scheduled deployment to Iraq of a Germany-based army brigade of about 3,500 soldiers, as officials pondered a broader cut in the US force.

Maliki, a Shiite Islamist nominated as prime minister two weeks ago after months of stalemate following December’s election, is expected to unveil a Cabinet soon, possibly by Thursday.

Senior officials said Maliki, who has pledged to form a government of Shiites, Sunni Arabs and Kurds to stem violence, will announce at a news conference scheduled for Tuesday the distribution of ministries among parliament’s four main groups.

“Tomorrow Maliki will announce which list gets which ministry. If all goes well, God willing, on Thursday we might have a government,” a senior official in Maliki’s ruling Shiite alliance bloc told Reuters.

Ibrahim Janabi, a legislator from the party of secular former prime minister Iyad Allawi, said political parties were close to agreeing on how to share out Cabinet posts.

“Tomorrow we will finalise what list will get which ministry,” Janabi told Reuters.

Maliki has said he will pick non-sectarian and competent politicians for his Cabinet, including for the key posts of interior, defence and oil, which in previous governments have been tainted by charges of political cronyism and sectarianism.

Minority Sunni Arabs have accused the Shiite-controlled interior ministry of running death squads against Sunnis and are demanding an interior minister not tied to militias, many of which are linked to Maliki’s Shiite alliance.

Oil markets and international investors will be closely watching Maliki’s choice of oil minister, who will face the daunting task of resurrecting Iraq’s crippled oil sector.

The United States harbours great hopes that a coalition government led by Maliki will avert a slide towards civil war, with Iraqi forces taking over the fight against insurgents.

Two US soldiers have been killed in Iraq over the past two days, one on Monday by a roadside bomb southeast of Baghdad, the US military said. At least 2,420 American soldiers have been killed since the US-led war in 2003.


Britain to announce cuts


Two days after five British soldiers were killed when their helicopter was apparently shot down in Basra, Iraq’s second- largest city, Prime Minister Tony Blair said on Monday Britain expected to make an announcement soon about cutting the size of its force in Iraq.

“The whole purpose is that there should be a process whereby we can draw down our troops as the Iraqi capability takes over the activities of security enforcement,” Blair told a news conference, when asked about the size of the British force.

“I think you will find in the next few weeks we will have some things to say about that, that may give people some more certainty for the future.” Britain has about 8,000 troops in Iraq, mainly in the south, where they patrol four mainly Shiite provinces including oil-rich Basra.

British officials have said some of those southern provinces could be among the first considered safe enough for US-led multinational forces to withdraw and hand over security responsibility to Iraqis.

The bodies of two Iraqi journalists who worked for the Iraqi Nahrain satellite channel were found shot through the head after they were kidnapped on Sunday south of Baghdad, police and colleagues said.

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