Iraq PM eyes security, services as new govt meets


BAGHDAD: Iraq’s new cabinet held its first meeting on Wednesday, a day after a parliamentary vote ended months of political deadlock, but now must address the public’s real concerns — security and services.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki “met this morning with his ministers to tell them that his three top priorities are security, public services, especially electricity, and relations with neighbouring countries,” Ali Moussawi, an adviser to Maliki, told AFP.
In separate votes on Tuesday, parliament gave its approval to Maliki, three deputy prime ministers and 31 other cabinet ministers, as well as a government programme, and approved interim ministers for the remaining 10 cabinet posts. But the ministries responsible for two of Maliki’s three priorities — security and electricity — currently have only acting heads.
Maliki has assumed interim control of the ministries of defence, interior and national security, the portfolios responsible for assuring security after the planned pullout by end 2011 of the roughly 50,000 US troops left in Iraq.
Maliki, who does not want to extend the US troop presence, can boast of a significant reduction in violence since he took power in 2006, but about 3,500 people have still be killed across the country this year.
Al-Qaeda in Iraq has been dealt significant blows. But the organisation retains the capacity to carry out high-profile operations like the October 31 seizure of a Baghdad cathedral, which was claimed by an Al-Qaeda front, the Islamic State of Iraq, and cost the lives of 44 worshippers, two priests and seven security force personnel.
Seven years after the US-led invasion of Iraq, public services, especially electricity, remain in a deplorable state.
Draconian power rationing remains routine and sparked deadly protests during the summer as temperatures topped 50 degrees Celsius (120 Fahrenheit) across central and southern Iraq, leaving those unable to afford private generators unable to air-condition homes or refrigerate food. Those protests sparked the resignation of the then electricity minister. Deputy Prime Minister Hussein Shahristani, who as oil minister in the outgoing government took interim charge of the electricity post, is to stay on as an acting minister until a permanent appointment has been made.
Power demand in Iraq stands at around 15,000 MW, but the country generates just 6,000 MW and imports a further 1,000 MW. Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, a Kurdish former rebel who has been a permanent fixture in every government since the invasion, will take charge of Maliki’s third priority of improving relations with neighbouring countries.
Doing so is likely to prove a challenge.
Relations with Syria have improved since a crisis over several months of 2009, when Baghdad backed by the United States accused Damascus of harbouring “terrorists.” But relations remain rocky with staunchly Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia, which campaigned strongly against Maliki winning a second term as prime minister because of his perceived close ties to Shiite Iran.
And a number of issues remain between Baghdad and Kuwait, which Iraq invaded in 1990 only to be expelled by an international coalition seven months later.
Iraq still pays five percent of revenues from its oil sales into a reparations fund for Kuwait, which is demanding that it pay another 22 billion dollars. Kuwait has so far received about 13 billion dollars. Judging by the Iraqi press reaction to the new government line-up, any honeymoon period for Maliki to make progress in improving security and services is likely to be short-lived.
“What’s important is not how many people are on the boat but how well the captain steers it across stormy seas,” said an editorial in independent daily Al-Mashraq.
“And he must not use the heavy winds as an excuse not to lead us to the safe haven of peace and security.” Another newspaper, Al-Dustur, expressed regret that some ministers had been appointed not because of their abilities but through “nepotism or political favour.” Of the 35 cabinet posts finally distributed, Maliki’s Shiite National Alliance bloc holds 19, the secular Iraqiya nine, the Kurdish Alliance four, and other smaller parties three. The cabinet announced so far is made up of 20 Shiites, 10 Sunnis, four Kurds, and one Christian, according to an AFP count.