Iraq’s parliament has approved a series of key ministers after a month of wrangling, completing the formation of a unity government as the country’s military and security forces struggle to push back the Islamic State.
Publicly, most Iraqi parliamentarians called the move a step in the right direction, but others dismissed the appointments as politically motivated and the appointees themselves as inexperienced.
“I think it’s a good sign” says Mowaffak al-Rubaie, a longtime Shia statesman currently representing Baghdad in Parliament and a former security advisor to former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
“Now that Mr. Abadi has completed his cabinet, the government can function,” Rubaie explained.
Shortly after being sworn in as Prime Minister in September, Haider al-Abadi’s initial nominations to the ministries of the Interior and Defense were rejected. The ensuing political deadlock fueled concerns that Abadi would be unable to bring about political reconciliation between Iraq’s Sunnis and Shia, a key requirement for U.S. aid to the country’s floundering military in the fight against the Islamic State.
Sunni distrust of Maliki’s Shia dominated government and his increasingly sectarian policies were seen as a one of the principal factors leading to the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq.
U.S. officials lauded the completion of the cabinet as critical to building a durable coalition to defeat the Islamic State.
“Significantly, this is the first time since 2010 that Iraq has had a full cabinet with security ministers confirmed by the Iraqi parliament,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.
Vice President Joe Biden phoned Abadi and discussed “the work ahead, including steps to rebuild Iraq’s security forces and enlist all of Iraq’s communities in the fight against the Islamic State,” the White House said.
The Ministry of Interior went to Mohammed Salem al-Ghabban, a Shiite lawmaker with the controversial Badr Organization. Abadi’s previous nominee for the post was Hadi al-Amiri, the head of Badr and the former minister of transport.
In an interview shortly after the nominations were announced, Al-Amiri said he was satisfied with the choice of al-Ghabban as Minister of Interior.
“He was my choice,” Amiri said. “I told Abadi from day one it didn’t have to be me, it could be anyone from Badr.”
The Badr Organization’s armed wing has been accused of an array of human rights abuses including sectarian killings.
A Sunni parliamentarian from Mosul, Khaled al-Obeidi, will now head up the Ministry of Defense. The choice of a politician from Mosul is a symbolically important move as the city was the first major Iraqi metropolis to fall under the control of the Islamic State when militants swept across northern Iraq in June.
“I see both appointments as weak,” said one senior Iraqi politician from a powerful Shia bloc in parliament who requested anonymity in order to speak freely. “They’re young, inexperienced and not that bright.” The politician said those character traits were particularly concerning as the two positions are responsible for the nation’s security forces at a time when the country is battling a radical insurgency.
As for what the appointments say about the future of Abadi’s Prime Ministership, the senior politician described it as “not promising.”
Iraq’s parliament also approved a tourism minister, a women’s affairs minister and a minister of immigration and displacement. Two Kurdish ministers were also sworn in, a move former Kurdish parliamentarian Mahmoud Othman described as important because it could signal more cooperation between Iraq’s Kurdish region and the central government in Baghdad.
“When they took that oath that means they are now part of this government and so now I think they should start serious talks,” Othman said in reference to ongoing budget disagreements between the Kurdistan Regional Government and Baghdad.
But, he relented, ultimately he saw all of Saturday’s appointments as pure politics. “The qualification comes second,” he said. “They are all capable of doing the job, but I don’t think they will do it well.”
George is a McClatchy Special Correspondent