BAGHDAD, Iraq – Prime Minister-designate Nouri al-Maliki said Tuesday that the formation of the Cabinet was "mostly complete," but an influential Shiite group and some Sunni Arab lawmakers signaled the deal was far from done.
Al-Maliki met with deputies from the United Iraqi Alliance, a powerful Shiite bloc that includes his Dawa Party, and said that they were waiting only for a response from the Fadhila Party, a Shiite group that last week withdrew from the negotiations.
At the time of its withdrawal Fadhila had ridiculed the process as flawed and driven by U.S. pressure and sectarianism. It had also wanted the oil ministry.
The Cabinet is "mostly complete," and "we are waiting today for a final response from the Iraqi List and our brothers in the Fadhila Party," al-Maliki said after the meeting.
The Iraqi List is a secular coalition headed by former Shiite Premier Ayad Allawi. It has demanded the defense portfolio among other ministries.
Bit has been a Sunni Arab demand for the defense ministry that has caused most of the delays ahead of the May 22 constitutionally-set deadline for al-Maliki to form his Cabinet.
"There is no change in our stand," Fadhila spokesman, Sheik Sabah al-Saedi, told The Associated Press. "We did not attend the alliance's meeting because it dealt with the formation of the government and, since we are not participating, we boycotted it."
Shiite lawmakers told The AP that the overall distribution of the Cabinet posts had been agreed to.
Under that plan, the Shiite bloc would secure 16 posts; the Kurds would get 5; the Sunni Arab Accordance Front 3; the Iraqi List 4; and the independent Sunni Arab National Dialogue Council 3.
According to officials close to the talks, such a plan hinges on a decision by al-Maliki to appoint one of four Sunni Arab candidates whose names have already been circulating for the defense ministry. The Interior Ministry would be headed by a Shiite, said Hassan al-Sineid, a Shiite deputy who belongs to al-Maliki and outgoing Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari's Dawa Party.
The four names have been circulated by the Accordance Front and the Iraqi List. The sticking point, however, lies on the insistence of the Front to have the choice of naming the minister, even if it is on al-Maliki's short list. According to al-Sineid, they include the current defense minister — who is a Sunni Arab.
Sunni lawmakers, however, have cast doubt on the make up of the deal presented by al-Maliki.
Accordance Front head Adnan al-Duleimi said he had not been briefed on it, and Saleh al-Mutlaq of the National Dialogue Council said his party had rejected the three ministries offered to them as insufficient.
"We have asked for more, and reject participation in the negotiations on this basis," al-Mutlaq. "This government will not have a long life."
Another key Sunni deputy, Dhafer al-Ani, who earlier Tuesday sounded optimistic, changed his tone later in the day after hours of negotiations. Infighting and the self-interests of some in the Front had undercut the bloc's ability to secure better footing in the negotiations, he said.
"There is a wide gap between what was promised and what was realized, and this is a situation that affects the security of the entire country," said al-Ani, a member of the Iraqi Islamic Party and part of the Accordance Front.
"This goes directly to our ability to address the needs our constituents. None of the ministries (we received) has any relation to the needs of the Sunni constituency," he said, adding that an announcement was expected within days.
The continuing debate underscores the challenges Iraqi lawmakers have both faced and helped create over the past few months as they struggle with conflicting sectarian and religious interests and escalating violence around the country.
Iraqi and U.S. officials hope that the new government, which must be formed before next Monday, will help draw support form the insurgency by further integrating Sunni Arabs into the government. Sunnis form the support network for the insurgency blamed for some of the worst violence in Iraq.