BAGHDAD – The Iraqi government whose advent Obama administration officials hailed Monday as “a major milestone” in the country’s push to confront the Islamic State looked less attractive on Tuesday: The Cabinet consists mainly of holdovers from previous governments, there’s deep discord over who will head the key security ministries, and the Kurds for now are refusing to take up their posts.
Some parliamentarians blamed the ragged edges on the Obama administration, which pushed hard for the removal of Nouri al-Maliki as prime minister and welcomed his replacement, Haider al-Abadi, after he was voted in Monday.
A senior U.S. official, identified in published reports as Brett McGurk, deputy assistant secretary of state, even invited himself and a senior United Nations official to a meeting of Kurdish political leaders in Suleymaniya in the Kurdish region where the Kurds were deciding whether to join the new government, said Fuad Hussein, chief of staff for Kurdish President Masoud Barzani. McGurk stressed the importance of the Kurds’ participation, the official said.
But before Kurdish politicians could decide, Parliament voted for al-Abadi’s sketchily outlined government program and for most of his ministers. Kurdish members spent most of the evening in the cafeteria, saying they had no instructions from the parties that sent them to Parliament. Then they announced they would take part in the government for three months, during which their leaders hope to negotiate on issues critical to Kurds.
“There was turmoil because of American pressure,” Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish member of Parliament, told McClatchy. He said Kurdish representatives pleaded for a delay in opening the session so that the region’s five political parties could formally decide to join the government.
“They didn’t even get a half-hour,” he said. And the vote “went very fast,” he added, comparing the process to “American fast food.”
He linked the rush to President Barack Obama’s plan for a speech Wednesday night on how the U.S. plans to work with Iraqis to combat Islamic extremists, who’ve taken over as much as half of the country. And he linked the Kurdish leadership’s assent to joining the new government to the military support the U.S. is now giving Kurds.
“They couldn’t resist American pressure,” he said. “They have to pay back.”
But the Kurds did resist al-Abadi’s pressure. Although al-Abadi had named several Kurds to senior posts in the government, they did not take part in the voting, were not sworn in and did not attend the scheduled first meeting of the government Tuesday, according to Hussein. The Kurdish political parties must first agree to nominate the individuals, and they might choose others for the posts, he said.
The most prominent appointee is Roz Shawis, a former deputy prime minister, whom al-Abadi named as his finance minister.
Kurds demanded that al-Abadi not publish his government program because they had not completed negotiations on several critical issues, Hussein said. These include the central government making good on federal payments to public employees who al-Maliki suspended early this year in a dispute over Kurdish sales of oil directly to foreign purchasers.
The Kurdish boycott is not the only factor weakening the new government. Al-Abadi asked for another week to fill the critical positions of defense and interior ministers. Hussein indicated that Hadi al-Ameri, head of the Shiite Badr Organization, and Khalid al-Ubaidi, a Sunni former military officer whose name was mentioned for defense minister, were both unacceptable.
“Ministers for these posts must be chosen as soon as possible,” he said. But he added that “there must be a consensus on both of them,” implying that all three major Iraqi groupings – Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds – must approve them, and any one can veto the choice.
“I don’t know who published those names,” he said of the list that circulated Monday evening. “I don’t know what went wrong.”
Al-Ameri is the most controversial, because of his reputed closeness to Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, who trained the Badr Brigades, a militia involved in sectarian violence during Iraq’s internal conflict.
“He’s a hugely bad choice,” said Samir Sumaidiae, a former Iraqi ambassador to Washington who also had served as interior minister. “He’s totally unacceptable to the other communities.”
As for Ubaidi, Sumanidiae said he knew little about him, a point made by lawmakers Monday.
Most of al-Abadi’s Cabinet appointments from the Shiite and Sunni communities were not contentious but were familiar faces who’d served in past governments, and this also prompted some biting observations.
Reidar Visser, a respected Norwegian scholar on Iraq, said the composition of the incoming cabinet is “quite similar” to al-Maliki’s outgoing cabinet, except that the cabinet has shrunk in size to about 30 posts from 45 under al-Maliki.
But he was critical of al-Abadi’s choice of Sunnis, whose support for the new government is considered critical to any fight against the Islamic State, whose military campaign has drawn support from disaffected Sunni tribes.
“The government didn’t have the contacts or the courage to reach out” to new faces, he said. “They could have brought in more local politicians from the Sunni provinces who’ve indicated they are unhappy” with the Islamic State.
A leading Kurdish analyst disparaged al-Abadi’s choice of Sunnis as lacking imagination. “These are ‘Green Zone' Sunnis,” said Hiwa Osman, a Kurdish columnist, referring to the government quarter of Baghdad. “You need Sunni Triangle Sunnis,” a reference to a densely populated region north of Baghdad, where there was fierce resistance to the American occupation and where the Islamic State has challenged government control.
McClatchy special correspondent Hussein Kadhim contributed to this report.