Iraq's new government is finally sworn in, but still a work in progress

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The Independent Online

The deep divisions between Iraq's communities were in glaring evidence when its first democratic government was sworn in, with several cabinet posts still unfilled.

The cabinet, led by Ibrahim al-Jaafari, was sworn in at a ceremony yesterday inside the Green Zone in Baghdad which is heavily fortified and defended by US troops. But no permanent ministers were named to the oil, defence, electricity, industry or human rights ministries.

There was no sign of Sheikh Ghazi al-Yawer, the Sunni former president who is now Vice-President, who may have been boycotting the ceremony because of the failure of the Sunni Arabs to get the jobs they want. Many members of the National Assembly did not turn up at the swearing-in ceremony.

The Shia coalition is willing to give the defence ministry to a Sunni but negotiators have failed to agree who should have the post. The Shia want a measure of control over security and have already appointed one their supporters to the Interior Ministry.

The three months it has taken since the election of 30 January to produce a government, even one in which several ministries have not been filled, shows the suspicion with which the Shia, Kurdish and Sunni regard each other.

The new government is likely to be a weak one with Mr Jaafari unable to exercise much control over his cabinet or even the ministers from the United Iraqi Alliance, the Shia coalition, of which his Dawa party is a member.

The government is notable for the return to prominence of Ahmed Chalabi, once the favoured friend of the US neo-conservatives but now allied to Muqtada al-Sadr and other militant Shia politicians. Ali Allawi, his nephew, long a resident in the UK, is the Finance Minister.

Ibrahim Bahr al-Uloum, a close associate of Mr Chalabi, is the most likely candidate to be sworn in as oil minister according to an aide of Mr Jaafari. "Dr Bahr al-Uloum is the most qualified candidate among the United Iraqi Alliance," said Jawad al-Maliki, a senior official in Mr Jaafari's Dawa.

He is also the son of the well known Shia cleric Mohammed Bahr al-Uloum. Mr Chalabi is acting oil minister as well Deputy Prime Minister.

The oil minister was, until last week, a technocrat and geologist called Thamir al-Ghadhaban who has held the post since June 2004. Mr Uloum is less well regarded within the oil ministry. Iraqi oil production is currently 1.5 million barrels a day worth $17 bn (£8bn) a year but the oil industry is being hit by sabotage attacks on an almost daily basis by militants.

The outgoing administration of Iyad Allawi notoriously failed to grapple successfully with restoring public order, ensuring a regular and continuous supply of electricity or keeping petrol stations supplied with gasoline and diesel.

Though the insurgency was, in part, responsible for that, many Iraqis held ministers responsible for the social and economic crisis because they were often inexperienced, corrupt and often out of the country. There is no reason why the new government should not suffer the same failings.

Television pictures of a confident-looking President Jamal Talabani striding on to the platform in the Convention Centre gives an impression of returning normality in Iraq which is far from reality. Baghdad airport, under the control of the US, has been closed since Sunday, cutting off the capital from one of its few links with the outside world. The roads out of the capital are beset by resistance gunmen and bandits.

Power in Iraq is very fragmented with the Shia, Sunni, Kurds, Americans and, to a lesser degree, Iraq's neighbours all capable of influencing the situation.

A problem for Mr Jaafari is the Sunni are demanding representation in the cabinet although they largely boycotted the election. They have only 17 seats in the 275-member National Assembly although the Sunni are 15 to 20 per cent of the population and five million people. It is by no means clear the Sunni who might take the jobs are representative of their community.

The cabinet so far selected consists of 15 Shia, seven Kurds, four Sunni and one Christian.