BAGHDAD, Iraq – Iraq's National Assembly on Thursday approved the country's first democratically elected government, a Shiite-dominated body that excludes the Sunni minority from meaningful positions and could hamper efforts to dampen the deadly insurgency.
Two of the four deputy prime minister's slots remained vacant, however, and five ministries, including the important defense and oil slots, were left in the hands of temporary managers.
The outcome also signaled another surprising political comeback for Ahmad Chalabi (search), the one-time Pentagon favorite who later fell from grace over accusations he leaked intelligence to Iran and gave flawed evidence that Saddam Hussein (search) was hoarding weapons of mass destruction.
Chalabi, a Shiite, will serve as deputy prime minister and acting oil minister. His nephew, Ali Abdel-Amir Allawi, was appointed finance minister.
Incoming Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari (search) hailed the new Cabinet as "the first step in building the new Iraq." While the country faces significant hurdles, he said Iraqis who "challenged tyranny" by electing a new parliament in January "will help this government to succeed and will not be intimidated."
However, Sunni leaders, including Deputy President Ghazi al-Yawer, expressed disappointment with the lineup.
"The number of ministries given to the Sunnis is not enough," al-Yawer told reporters. But he said the issue could be resolved soon as Iraq continues its transition to democracy, including electing a new government by year's end.
The primary goal of this first elected government will be to write a permanent constitution by mid-August. It must be submited to a referendum no later than Oct. 15. If the constitution is approved, elections for a permanent government must be held by Dec. 15.
Sunni factions had been promised six ministers and one deputy prime minister, but walked away with just four relatively insignificant portfolios — including tourism.
Shiite leaders rejected al-Jaafari's initial choices for a Sunni deputy prime minister and defense minister because of suspicions they had ties to Saddam's Baath Party, which brutally repressed Shiites and Kurds. Sunni factions had also hoped for other important posts, but lost out to competing factions within al-Jaafari's Shiite-dominated alliance and its Kurdish allies.
U.S. officials had been pressing for a resolution to the three-month stalemate, worrying the political vacuum was encouraging insurgents, who have staged a series of dramatic and well-coordinated attacks in recent weeks.
U.S. President Georege W. Bush put a positive spin on Thursday's vote, issuing a statement that the Cabinet "will represent the unity and diversity" of the country as it begins the work of drafting a new constitution, fighting terrorism and ensuring basic services for its citizens.
However, nearly a third of the 275-member National Assembly stayed away from the vote, underscoring the myriad ethnic and religious divisions that have hampered the formation of a government since landmark parliamentary elections on Jan. 30.
The 185 lawmakers assembled behind the blast walls and sandbags of Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone voted by a show of hands, approving the list by 180 votes. A bouquet of flowers filled the seat of one absent lawmaker — Lamia Abed Khadouri al-Sakri, a Shiite Muslim legislator gunned down in her home the previous day.
Al-Jaafari submitted a Cabinet with 37 positions representing the country's main Shiite, Kurdish, Sunni and Christian groups. However, two deputy prime minister's slots remained vacant and acting ministers were assigned to five portfolios — including the important defense and oil slots.
Al-Jaafari, whose United Iraqi Alliance is the largest bloc in parliament, told reporters the disputed positions would be filled in three to four days.
The new Cabinet held its first meeting Thursday night to discuss the handover between outgoing Prime Minister Ayad Allawi and al-Jaafari, which is also expected within days, lawmakers said.
Allawi's Iraqi List party was not included in the new Cabinet. Many Shiites have long resented the secular Allawi, accusing his outgoing administration of including former Baathists in the government and security forces.
But lawmakers loyal to Allawi said they supported al-Jaafari's government and were ready to take on a new roll in the opposition.
"We believe that Iraq should not be crippled any longer," said Iraqi List lawmaker Hussein al-Sadr. "The country needs a Cabinet."
Al-Jaafari too sounded a conciliatory note.
"The main thing to keep in mind is that no one will be excluded," he said. "Whether in the Cabinet or not, all sides will have the right to participate in the political process."
President Jalal Talabani and his two vice presidents signed off on the Cabinet list before Thursday's historic vote.
The approved ministers include 15 Shiite Arabs, seven Kurds, four Sunnis and one Christian. Six of them are women.
Al-Jaafari himself will be acting defense minister, a position that was supposed to go to a Sunni Arab. Kurdish official and former Vice President Rowsch Nouri Shaways will be a deputy prime minister and acting electricity minister.
The human rights portfolios, intended for a Sunni, and industry, destined for a Kurd, are also in the hands of acting ministers.
Sunnis dominated under Saddam but make up just 15 percent to 20 percent of Iraq's 26 million people. Most stayed away from the elections, either in protest or out of fear of attacks at the poll. Sixty percent of the population is Shiite, and 20 percent Kurdish.
Saddam himself spent his 68th birthday in U.S. custody. A defense lawyer said Wednesday that he was in good health and high spirits.
Highlighting the challenges facing the new government, insurgents fired at least six mortar rounds toward a U.S. military base in Musayyib, 40 miles south of Baghdad, but hit a nearby bus station instead, killing four Iraqis and wounding 21, U.S. and Iraqi officials said.
One American soldier was killed and four wounded when an improvised explosive device detonated Thursday near Hawija, about 150 miles north of Baghdad, the military said in a statement. As of Thursday, April 28, 2005, at least 1,572 members of the U.S. military have died since the beginning of the Iraq war in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.
Also in northern Iraq, near Tikrit, a car bomb exploded near an Iraqi army checkpoint, wounding four Iraqi soldiers, three U.S. soldiers and seven Iraqi civilians, the U.S. military said.
In the capital, Lt. Col. Alaa Khalil Ibrahim, who worked in the visa section of the Interior Ministry, was shot and killed on the way to work, police said. Later, a roadside bomb exploded, wounding two policemen on patrol in Baghdad, police said
An Internet statement in the name of an Iraqi militant group claimed Thursday to have shot dead six Sudanese truck drivers whom it kidnapped. The Ansar al-Sunnah Army posted a video of the shooting, but it was not possible to confirm that the six men, kneeling on the ground in white robes with their heads toward the camera, were killed.