|Nouri Al Maliki deserves credit for having solved the thorny issue of who heads the three key ministries of Interior, Defence and National Security. AP|
Has tried hard, but could have done better! This is what one could say of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki's first cabinet. At one level, the new cabinet of 39 ministers could be seen as an accurate representation of virtually all shades of political opinion in Iraq today.
This, in addition to the fact that all of Iraq's 18 ethnic and religious communities have at least one spokesperson in the new cabinet, means that Al Maliki has raised a tent large enough for anyone who wishes to make the new Iraq a success.
Al Maliki also deserves credit for having solved the thorny issue of who heads the three key ministries of Interior, Defence and National Security whose task is to crush the insurgency and restore stability and security in areas still affected by the terrorist campaign. He has decided to keep the interior ministry under his control for the time being.
Zikam Al Zubaie, a Sunni Arab leader, becomes acting defence minister and Barham Saleh, a Kurdish leader, takes over as acting minister for national security. All this means the three key ministries are no longer controlled by politicians linked with various rival militias.
Al Maliki has also done well with regard to the explosive issue of how much federalism new Iraq should develop. By putting the issue on the backburner, he has deprived both Arab Sunni and Arab Shiite extremists of one of their key topics.
At another level, however, the new Cabinet may have some elements of an eventual failure written in its genes. One such element is that it was formed more on the basis of partisan considerations than agreement on any broad political orientations. Worse still, the prime minister has not succeeded in forging a consensus on the three key issues his government faces.
The first of these issues is how best to deal with the terrorist insurgency. Several ministers in the new Cabinet insist that the only way to deal with it is to take the gloves off and fight without the Marques of Queensbury rules. They argue that the terrorists have been allowed to choose the time and the place for their attacks because they are seldom targeted by pre-emptive operations.
Thus they want the new Iraqi security forces to seize control of the three or four relatively small towns where the insurgents are hiding and conduct "combing out operations" against them even if that could produce some "collateral damage".
That view, however, is opposed by Al Maliki himself along with President Jalal Talabani. They both believe a more patient approach is needed and that the proposed "combing out" strategy might crush the more active insurgent groups but could also produce long-lasting bitterness among the largely Arab Sunni population of the areas concerned.
What is certain is that the new government needs to quickly agree on a strategy for defeating the insurgency. Both the "combing out" method, which worked well in Algeria in the 1990s, and the "soft-hard" policy, which worked in Malaya in the 1950s, could, if applied with resolve, produce the desired results.
However, what will not work is a mixture of the two methods that is bound to alienate the non-combatant populations while doing little harm to the terrorists. That was precisely the policy the interim government, headed by Prime Minister Ebrahim Al Jaafari tried for almost a year, with little success.
The second issue concerns the future status of the US-led coalition forces in Iraq. The new government and parliament have until the end of this year to devise a position before entering into negotiations with the US and its allies. Unless a new agreement is reached, the US-led coalition could, at least in theory, be able to terminate its mission by the end of 2006.
Our current understanding is that a majority in the new parliament wants the coalition to prolong its stay in Iraq for at least another year. However, what is needed is a longer commitment by the coalition, one that would send a signal to all enemies of new Iraq that they cannot hope to win simply by waiting out President George W. Bush.
The Americans, however, are unlikely to support a longer-term insurance policy for Iraq, say three to five years, unless they are persuaded that this is what a clear majority of the Iraqis want. It is the task of the new government to take the lead on that issue.
The third issue that could unravel Al Maliki's government is corruption. Over the past two years, tens of thousands of fictitious government employees have been put on the public payroll by political leaders and militia commanders.
In other words, the government is actually paying those who are dedicated to preventing it from asserting its authority. At the same time, however, tens of thousands of public sector employees, including doctors and teachers, do not receive their wages regularly.
Because the outside world is focused on terrorist incidents in Iraq, which although claiming many lives ultimately do not alter the overall political picture, not enough attention is paid to the gangrene effect of spreading corruption that is the real enemy of Iraqi democracy.
One reason for remaining optimistic, however, is that the new parliament is likely to witness the emergence of a robust opposition bloc headed by former prime minister Eyad Allawi, a secular Shiite, and Salih Al Mutlak, the rising star of Arab Sunni politics. The key to this government's success is the degree to which it might succumb to the kind of self-satisfied complacency that has been the topos of despotism in many Arab countries.
Iranian author and journalist Amir Taheri is a member of Benador Associates.