BAGHDAD – Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki submitted his new Cabinet on Monday, clearing a hurdle to seating a government more than nine months after national elections even though serious disputes with one of his key allies remained.
Nearly one-third of the nominees were only acting ministers, an attempt to buy time to work out disagreements over some of the posts with the hardline Shiite faction loyal to anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Without the Sadrists, al-Maliki would not have had enough support to try to build the government in the first place.
Parliament was expected to vote on the list of 42 ministers and other top government posts as early as Tuesday, according to Speaker Osama al-Nujaifi, a member of the Sunni-backed Iraqiya alliance that won the most seats in the March 7 election and, until this month, bitterly fought to prevent al-Maliki from keeping his job.
Standing shoulder-to-shoulder with al-Maliki at a joint news conference Monday night, al-Nujaifi said the prime minister had met his obligation to designate Iraq's new leadership by the constitutional deadline of Saturday.
"I am very happy today," al-Maliki told reporters. "What has happened today is new evidence that we, as Iraqis, cannot continue our differences forever."
Although 13 of the posts were given to acting ministers, al-Nujaifi's endorsement suggested that Iraqiya was on board. Officials said all but three of those posts will be filled with permanent candidates by Saturday.
The remaining posts — the all-important defense, interior and national security ministries that control Iraq's security forces — would be filled within a month to give lawmakers more time to ensure they are run by politically independent figures, officials said.
That did not sit well with the Sadrists, who initially said they were suspicious that al-Maliki would fill those three jobs with their enemies.
The Sadrist alliance with al-Maliki always has been tenuous and was brokered only this fall by Iran. The two sides had been enemies since 2008, when the prime minister launched an offensive crushing al-Sadr's militia in Baghdad's Sadr City district and the southern city of Basra.
"We had information that al-Maliki was trying to appoint a person who is hostile to the Sadrists," Sadrist lawmaker Amir al-Kinani said late Monday. "We have supporters and we do not want our people to be provoked."
But al-Kinani said those worries were assuaged by the night's end: "This issue has been settled."
Other lawmakers said they, too, were irritated that al-Maliki did not present a Cabinet with names of candidates for all 42 posts. Al-Maliki will be acting minister for the three security positions until the candidates are designated.
"An agreement should be reached on all security posts," said Mahmoud Othman, an independent Kurdish politician. "Why should they remain open and with the prime minister for an unspecified period of time?"
Al-Maliki, who has served as prime minister since May 2006, said the delays would ensure all parties are fairly represented in the government.
"The formation of national unity government in Iraq is a difficult and hard task because we need to find place in the government for all those who participated and won in the elections," al-Maliki said, speaking just hours after lawmakers gloomily predicted further delays.
Until very recently, it was Iraqiya that was the biggest thorn in al-Maliki's side. Iraqiya just this month dropped its long-standing demand that its leader, Ayad Allawi, should have the first shot at forming a government.
Allawi, a secular Shiite, said his concession to al-Maliki came after he was assured about a power-sharing agreement to divide up the posts among Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds. He will lead a new government strategy council that will oversee al-Maliki's security and foreign policies, though it is not clear how much power it will have.
In another concession to Iraqiya, al-Maliki agreed to install Saleh al-Mutlaq, a Sunni, as a deputy prime minister just days after parliament voted to let him resume political life. Al-Mutlaq, a longtime al-Maliki critic, was banned from running in the March election because of alleged ties to Saddam Hussein's outlawed Baath Party regime.
Roz Nouri Shawis, a Kurd, and Hussein al-Shahristani, a Shiite, also were appointed to deputy prime minister posts. That too angered the Sadrists, who wanted one of those jobs for themselves. Additionally, despite being promised eight of the 10 ministries whose leaders have yet to be decided, they demanded a ninth.
The Sadrist alliance holds 40 of parliament's 325 seats.