- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 23, 2006

BAGHDAD — Tough-talking Shi’ite Jawad al-Maliki was given the responsibility of forming a coalition government by Iraqi leaders yesterday, ending a four-month political deadlock that many feared could pitch the country into a sectarian civil war.

“We are going to form a family that will not be based on sectarian or ethnic backgrounds,” Mr. al-Maliki told reporters, seeking to shed a hard-line Shi’ite image and present himself as a prime minister able to unite Shi’ite Muslims, Sunni Arabs and Kurds.

But in his first policy speech, Mr. al-Maliki called for Iraq’s powerful militias to be merged with U.S.-trained security forces — an explosive issue in the country because militias are tied to political parties and operate along religious lines.

“Arms should be in the hands of the government. There is a law that calls for the merging of militias with the armed forces,” said Mr. al-Maliki, nominated by the ruling Shi’ite Alliance, the largest bloc in parliament after December elections.

President Bush hailed the Iraqi agreement on a ruling coalition as a historic achievement that “will make America more secure.”

“Formation of a new Iraqi government is an opportunity for America to open a new chapter in our partnership with the Iraqi people,” Mr. Bush said during a visit to Sacramento, Calif.

Five U.S. soldiers were killed yesterday in two roadside bomb attacks south of Baghdad, the U.S. military said. More than 2,380 U.S. soldiers have been killed in Iraq since the March 2003 U.S.-led invasion to topple Saddam Hussein.

Mr. al-Maliki, who has 30 days to present his Cabinet to parliament, will have to tackle an insurgency that draws support from the minority Sunni community and sectarian bloodshed that has exploded since the February bombing of a Shi’ite shrine.

Sunnis held sway under Saddam’s rule, but the majority Shi’ites now are the leading force in politics.

Mr. al-Maliki also must rescue oil-rich Iraq’s economy, which has been starved of foreign investment because of the violence.

The Shi’ite Alliance chose Mr. al-Maliki — an official in Iraq’s oldest Islamist party — after its original candidate, interim Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, bowed out. Other parties opposed Mr. al-Jaafari on grounds he was too weak.

Iraqi President Jalal Talabani formally designated Mr. al-Maliki as prime minister after a breakthrough in negotiations Friday and asked him to form Iraq’s first full-term government since Saddam was ousted in 2003.

Earlier, parliament re-elected Mr. Talabani as president. Mr. Talabani, a Kurd, is the first non-Arab president of an Arab country.

Sunni Islamist Mahmoud al-Mashhadani was elected as parliamentary speaker. A former medical officer in Saddam’s army, he was jailed for joining outlawed Islamist groups.

Appointing officials overseeing powerful ministries, including the interior, defense and oil portfolios, will test Mr.al-Maliki’s ability as a deal-maker.

Sunni leaders have accused the Shi’ite-run Interior Ministry of operating death squads targeting Sunnis, so there may be a protracted battle over that portfolio. The Interior Ministry denies the charge.

Mr. al-Maliki, who spent years in exile in Iran and Syria, has pressed for the execution of Sunni insurgents who have killed Iraqis and a purge of former members of Saddam’s Ba’ath Party from government.

He had been widely viewed as a sectarian politician, but Sunni leaders say they can live with him.

The backing of the Sunni leaders is vital because of the support insurgents draw from the minority community.

“We noticed from his previous statements that he had sectarian stands. It is wrong to say we should not have fears about him. But we ask him to learn lessons from the recent past,” said Hussein al-Fallujah, from the main Sunni bloc.

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