After three months of wrangling, Iraq's new government finally takes shape

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The Independent Online

After three months of wrangling, the Iraqi interim National Assembly voted into office its first elected government since the fall of Saddam Hussein.

After three months of wrangling, the Iraqi interim National Assembly voted into office its first elected government since the fall of Saddam Hussein.

"This is the first step in building the new Iraq," said the Prime Minister designate, Ibrahim al-Jaafari. "The main thing to keep in mind is that no one will be excluded. Whether in the cabinet or not, all sides will have the right to participate in political process."

A number of the most powerful positions are unfilled and will be held by acting ministers. This shows that disputes between and within the parties representing the Shia, Kurdish and Sunni communities are unresolved. Mr Jaafari claimed that permanent ministers would be chosen in three or four days.

A total of 180 out of 185 deputies present voted for the new government.

Earlier, Mr Jaafari said: "The Iraqis will find that this government has religious, ethnic, political and geographic variety, in addition to the participation of women. Now that the process has started, we will spare no effort to bring back a smile to children's faces."

The enthusiasm among those Iraqis who voted in the 30 January election, hailed in the West as a turning point for Iraq, has dwindled as the months have passed without a government being formed.

Mr Jaafari himself stumbled as he walked towards the podium in the National Assembly, a misstep that may be seen by Iraqis as an ill-omen for the future of his government. He will for the moment hold the crucial post of defence minister while the acting minister of oil will be Ahmed Chalabi, formerly a close ally of the US neoconservatives and now a leader of the United Iraqi Alliance, the Shia coalition that won the election.

The government has taken so long to form because the Shias, Sunnis and Kurds are trying to work out their relationship in the post-Saddam Hussein era. The Shias, 60 per cent of the Iraqi population and with more than half of the seats in the 275-member National Assembly, want to make sure that they are not robbed of power as they feel they have been in the past. Mr Jaafari, a doctor by training and for two decades an exile in Iran and Britain, is the leader of Islamic Dawa, one of the main parties forming the UIA.

The Shias were insistent during negotiations that they should hold one at least of the security ministries. The new interior minister will be Bayan Jabr, a little known-member of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (Sciri), who spent many years in exile in Iran.

The US has been trying to fend off a Shia takeover of security, where American influence is strong. Donald Rumsfeld, the US Defence Secretary, warned during a visit to Iraq this month against a purge of Iraqi security, saying this would damage the offensive against the insurgents.

The Shias and the Kurds dominate the assembly. Kurds have already seen one of their leaders, Jalal Talabani, appointed President but they wanted to bring the former prime minister Ayad Allawi into the government as a counter-balance to Shia coalition. He won 14 per cent of the vote in the election.

Mr Allawi is not there and Sunni representation is limited. The Shias do not want to see former Baathists and supporters of Saddam keep their positions of power because of Kurdish and US pressure. Ghazi al-Yawer, a Sunni, formerly president and now Deputy President, said: "The number of ministries given to the Sunnis is not enough."

Few members of the outgoing interim government, put in place by the US last June, were effective in their jobs. Hoshyar Zebari, the Kurdish Foreign Minister, was probably the most successful and keeps his job. Overall the Kurdish ministers are far more experienced, after long years organising opposition to Saddam Hussein, than their Arab counterparts.

The previous government notably failed to improve the supply of electricity or fuel. In winter, which can be very cold in Baghdad, people could not buy kerosene. Queues of cars outside petrol stations stretched miles and drivers would sleep in their cars for two nights running.

Many ministers in Mr Allawi's government also became notorious for their interest in foreign travel. At one moment the entire cabinet was out of the country, according to a Baghdad newspaper. While abroad they were happy to give speeches about improved security in Iraq.

The new government will have greater legitimacy because the Kurds and Shias did go to the polls. While the US remains powerful behind the scenes, it is not the all-powerful puppet master it appeared to be in the past.

The Sunni Arab insurgents are unlikely to be impressed since they dismissed the election as being staged for propaganda purposes by the US. In recent months they have focused on killing government members. On Wednesday they shot dead a Shia legislator, Lamia Abed Khadouri al-Shakri, at her home .

The cabinet's top names

* IBRAHIM AL-JAAFARI, Prime Minister, acting Defence Minister.

The 57-year-old, whose real name is Ibrahim al-Shukair, is a senior figure in the Shia Dawa Party, which ran one of the main Iraqi armed groups trying to topple the Baathists.

He fled Iraq in 1980 after a crackdown on the party. In Iran, he rose in the ranks of Dawa's political branch, while the group's militia was carrying out attacks on Iraq during the 1980-88 Iraq-Iran war. Later he left for Syria and then to the UK. Educated as a physician at Mosul University, he worked as a doctor in his home town of Karbala.

* AHMED CHALABI, Deputy Prime Minister, acting Oil Minister.

The MIT graduate and mathematician left Iraq in 1958 and became a key member of the opposition in exile, forming close ties with the Pentagon. He was touted to become leader, but he fell out with the US last year over accusations he leaked intelligence to Iran. Many blamed him for flawed evidence on Saddam's weapons. He joined the United Iraqi Alliance led by Shia cleric Abdel-Aziz al-Hakim to secure a seat in parliament.

* HOSHYAR ZEBARI, Foreign Minister

Mr Zebari, 55, belongs to a powerful Kurdish group in north-west Iraq and is uncle of Massoud Barzani, one of the two leaders who control the Kurdish areas. He was a spokesman for Mr Barzani's Kurdish Democratic Party and as a member of the KDP political bureau, was active in opposition contacts with the United States before the war. He has held the foreign minister's post since the first interim government was formed June 2004.

* BAYAN JABR, Interior Minister

Mr Jabr, 55, was a Shia activist while studying engineering at Baghdad University in the 1970s. He fled to Iran amid a crackdown by Saddam on Shia political groups and joined the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq and later headed SCIRI's office in Syria. After Saddam's fall, he became minister of housing and reconstruction in the first, US-picked provisional cabinet. He is a senior member in the Shia United Iraqi Alliance.

* ALI ABDEL-AMIR ALLAWI, Finance Minister

The businessman was a consultant to the World Bank and heads a London-based investment firm, Pan-Arab. He was elected with the UIA. His uncle on his mother's side is Ahmed Chalabi. On his father's side, he is a cousin of Ayad Allawi. He was born in 1947 and left Iraq for Britain in 1956. He graduated from MIT in engineering and got an economics degree from Harvard. His father was health minister during Iraq's monarchy.