Dispute over top jobs delays Iraqi unity gov’t

BAGHDAD (Reuters) — Wrangling over the oil ministry portfolio and other top jobs held up on Wednesday the formation of a unity government the United States hopes can end rampant bloodshed and allow it to start withdrawing troops from Iraq.

As tough bargaining on a new broad-based government continued behind closed doors, tension between Iraq’s sectarian factions spilled into the open in parliament with a scuffle over a mobile phone and an attack on the speaker’s bodyguard.

Angry words between the Sunni speaker and a Shiite woman member about the telephone incident — featuring a controversial religious ringtone — led to a walkout, a television blackout and the speaker revealing the hit squad shooting of his guard.

Violence flared in various parts of the country, with gunmen killing 11 civilians travelling to work and the discovery of more dumped bodies, underlining the importance of a consensus government that can halt a slide towards civil war.

Political sources said disagreement within the dominant Shiite alliance on who should win the powerful oil ministry post is the main remaining obstacle to Iraq’s first full-term government since US-led forces toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003.

But they added that negotiations also continued on several other sensitive ministries, including the defence, interior, finance, transport and planning portfolios — crucial for efforts to reduce violence and rebuild the ruined economy.

Parliament met for only its second session of normal business since December’s elections, which were followed by five months of political stalemate as sectarian violence worsened.

Hawk wins respect

Prime Minister-designate Nuri Maliki, a Shiite Islamist who has won grudging respect from political foes, has vowed to build a government encompassing Iraq’s main religious and ethnic groups — Shiites, minority Sunni Arabs and Kurds.

Though seen as a Shiite hawk when named last month after Sunnis and Kurds blocked his ally and predecessor Ibrahim  Jaafari, Maliki insists he is ready to reach out to rebels who lay down their arms and join the US-backed political process.

Washington says a strong Sunni voice is needed to help defuse a raging insurgency by the minority, which dominated Iraq under Saddam but has since seen its influence wane.

Maliki suggested this week that the cabinet line-up could be announced on Wednesday after the rival blocs agreed to fill the interior and defence ministries with figures free of ties with militias accused of running death squads.

But a senior official involved in the negotiations made clear the talks had run into difficulties, saying he now hoped a deal could be finalised next week.

“We have a problem with names,” he admitted a day after Maliki said he hoped to announce his cabinet this week. Party sources said the oil ministry post would be nominated by the Shiite Alliance bloc, which won near-majority in December’s polls, but that it had so far failed to agree on a joint candidate.

The job is vital for any hope of better times for the country of around 27 million people shattered by decades of mismanagement, sanctions and war. Iraq boasts the world’s third largest oil reserves but the sector has been crippled by insurgent attacks, corruption and smuggling.

Leading contenders for oil minister includes technocrat and secular former minister Thamir Ghadhban and Hussain  Shahristani, a leading Shiite Islamist politician.

Thousand killed

The need for a coalition government to halt Iraq’s slide towards civil war was highlighted by figures showing more than 1,000 people were killed in Baghdad in April alone.

Sectarian violence has soared across Iraq since the bombing of a Shiite shrine in the city of Samarra in February.

Police said 13 corpses were found in different parts of Baghdad, showing signs of torture. Gunmen attacked a minibus near the city of Baqouba, killing 11 civilians on their way to work in the volatile area northeast of the capital.

In the north, police raised the death toll from a suicide bombing in the city of Tal Afar on Tuesday to 24 from 17 previously — one of the deadliest attacks in recent weeks.

The bomber blew up his car in a market in Tal Afar, which US President George W. Bush earlier this year held up as an example of progress being made in Iraq. The United States still has 133,000 troops in the country, suffering daily casualties.

In Kurdish northern Iraq, five suspected insurgents have escaped from a US military prison, the military said. On the latest figures, the US military is holding more than 14,000 people in Iraq, many of them from the Sunni minority.

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