Bloody day heralds birth of Iraq's new unity government

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Iraq's new unity government was approved by parliament in Baghdad yesterday in what may be the last chance to hold Iraq together as a unitary state.

The new Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, said his priority was to establish stability and security. But disagreements between the parties making up the new government meant that the ministers of defence and the interior - probably the two most important posts - have yet to be chosen.

Underlining how far security has declined since the parliament was elected five months ago, a series of attacks killed 27 people and wounded dozens more yesterday. Police also found the bodies of 21 Iraqis who had been kidnapped and tortured by death squads in and around Baghdad.

During the long months that the Shia, Sunni and Kurdish political parties negotiated the shape of a new administration, real control of Iraq has slipped further into the hands of Shia militias and Sunni insurgents. Ethnic and sectarian strife has been killing people at the rate of at least 40 a day.

"If the new government does establish security in Baghdad, they will be heroes," said Fuad Hussein, the chief of staff of the Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani.

The new government has some strengths not possessed by its short-term predecessor. It has been chosen by a parliament elected for a full four-year term. It contains Sunni Arab members representing political parties who fought the election on 15 December; the Sunni had boycotted an earlier election in January last year. And Mr Maliki is said to be more flexible than his predecessor as Prime Minister, Ibrahim al-Jaafari.

But the overall security situation in Iraq is far worse than it was a year ago. Baghdad and central Iraq, where Shia, Sunni and Kurd are mixed, is in the grip of a civil war fought by assassins and death squads. As in Bosnia in 1992, each community is pulling back into enclaves where it is the overwhelming majority and able to defend itself.

The new government will contain some able ministers, such as Hoshyar Zebari, the Foreign Minister. The Oil Minister will be Hussein al-Shahristani, a nuclear physicist imprisoned and tortured by Saddam Hussein. A pious Shia, he is close to the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and is a highly intelligent man, though he has no experience of the vital oil industry. Iraq earns $3bn a month from oil, but the industry is also notoriously corrupt.

So deep are the divisions in Iraq, however, that it is virtually impossible to create a united administration. Each party and community tends to treat the ministries it has received as fiefdoms to be exploited as a source of patronage, money and political power.

The need for each party to get a slice of the cake roughly equivalent to their share of the votes in December has led to some strange choices. Former interior minister Bayan Jabr was openly accused by the US of running Shia death squads. He has lost his old job, but has been appointed Finance Minister.