BAGHDAD, Iraq – Iraq's prime minister-designate said Tuesday the main stumbling blocks to forming a new Cabinet have been overcome and he expects to present his team to parliament for approval by the end of the week.
Nouri al-Maliki said representatives of the country's political parties had agreed on what factions would hold the "main posts" but were still discussing the distribution of "a few" of them. Those included the ministries of oil, trade and transportation, he said.
The incoming prime minister declined to spell out the distribution of ministries, including key posts of interior, which controls police, and defense, which runs the army. U.S. and British officials have insisted those posts go to people without ties to sectarian militias, believed responsible for many of the revenge killings of Sunnis and Shiites.
"The direction we took, and which was agreed upon by the political groups, was that the two who will occupy these posts be independent and unaffiliated with a party or a militia," he said at a news conference.
Al-Maliki, a Shiite, said he hoped to present the Cabinet to parliament by the end of the week. Parliament must approve each minister by a majority vote.
The challenge the new government will face in trying to reduce violence in Iraq was obvious in Tuesday's police reports, with five Iraqis killed in sporadic attacks in Baghdad and 17 bodies found nationwide, including eight pulled from a river south of the capital.
The U.S. command also reported that an American soldier was killed Monday in a bombing in east Baghdad, raising to at least 2,423 the number of members of the U.S. military who have died since the Iraq war started in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.
Since he was nominated prime minister last month, Al-Maliki has struggled to complete the final step in establishing the new Iraqi government.
U.S. officials hope the formation of a unity government will help calm sectarian tensions, lure Sunni Arabs away from the insurgency and eventually allow the withdrawal of some American forces.
But the process has been plagued by ethnic and sectarian tension and deadly attacks by insurgents, and al-Maliki has been working to balance the conflicting interests of Shiite, Sunni Arab and Kurdish legislators.
The Interior Ministry, currently headed by Bayan Jabr, a Shiite, has come under criticism from Sunnis who say that Shiite "death squads" are routinely targeting their community.
Sunni Arabs also have jockeyed for key ministries such as oil and finance. But those posts had largely been allocated to the United Iraqi Alliance, the Shiite bloc with the largest number of seats in the parliament.
As for the prominent Foreign Ministry, lawmakers have repeatedly said that this portfolio will remain in the hands of the Kurds, who also hold the presidency.
Meanwhile, the Committee to Protect Journalists condemned the killing of an Iraqi reporter and a media worker whose bodies were discovered south of Baghdad on Monday. Violence continued in the volatile area with the discovery of the headless corpses of three Iraqi soldiers floating in the Tigris River, apparently the latest victims of death squads that had kidnapped and killed hundreds of Sunnis and Shiites in recent months.
Laith al-Dulaimi, a reporter for the privately owned TV station Al-Nahrain, and Muazaz Ahmed Barood, a telephone operator for the station, were kidnapped by men disguised as police officers while driving home to Madain, a town 12 miles southeast of Baghdad, said Abdulkarim al-Mehdawi, the station's general manager.
Their bodies were discovered at al-Wihda district, 20 miles south of Baghdad. Both men, in their late 20s, had been shot in the chest, al-Mehdawi said.
In the last year alone, at least 35 Iraqis have been killed in and around Madain, a tense Shiite-Sunni area, according to an AP count.
"We are saddened by the loss of our colleagues Laith al-Dulaimi and Muazaz Barood," said Ann Cooper, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists. "Their senseless murder reflects the continuing dangers for journalists working in Iraq.
Al-Dulaimi became a reporter for Al-Nahrain four months ago. Barood had been working at the station since it was established just over a year and a half ago.
Al-Mehdawi told the committee that neither the station nor the journalists had ever received threats, and the motive behind the killings was unclear.
The New York-based organization said 69 journalists and 25 media support workers have been killed in Iraq since the war began in March 2003, making it the deadliest conflict for the media in recent history.
In other violence Tuesday, according to police:
• Two drive-by shootings killed four Iraqis in Baghdad, including Raad Mohammed al-Dulaimi, a member of the Iraqi Islamic Party, a major Sunni Arab political party.
• A roadside bomb hit a police car in Baghdad, killing one officer and wounding two.
• The bodies of 17 Iraqis were found: five in the capital; one in northern Iraq; eight, including a 10-year-old boy, in a river 30 miles south of Baghdad; and three Interior Ministry police commandos in Mahawil, 45 miles south of the capital.
They all appeared to be victims of sectarian death squads that have kidnapped and killed hundreds of Shiites and Sunnis in the last few months and dumped their bodies on city streets or in remote areas. Insurgents sometimes carry out such killings to punish Iraqis who are working for Iraq's military, police forces or government.