- The Washington Times - Friday, April 28, 2006

Iraqi leaders have broken an impasse over how to choose ministers of interior and defense, and a new government should be in place within weeks, an Iraqi close to the negotiations said yesterday.

Iraq’s prime minister designate, Nouri al-Maliki, will choose the interior minister from a list of three candidates nominated by one of the so-called “independent” Shi’ite parties that make up the seven-party United Iraqi Alliance.

This would apparently rule out the three biggest Shi’ite parties that are close to Islamist clerics — Dawa, the Supreme Council for Islamic Resistance in Iraq (SCIRI) and the party headed by anti-American cleric Sheik Muqtada al-Sadr.

Mr. al-Maliki would chose a defense minister from a list of three nominees provided by Sunni parties.

Laith Kubba, until recently the spokesman for outgoing Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, spelled out details of the agreement in an interview yesterday.

Mr. Kubba, who recently arrived in Washington from Iraq, remains in constant touch with the political decision makers in Baghdad.

A second source in Baghdad, who asked not to be named, confirmed the agreement by telephone.

The formula guarantees that a Shi’ite will head the Interior Ministry, which is in charge of the national police force, and that a Sunni will head the Defense Ministry.

The agreement represents an attempt to resolve disputes over who should occupy the two powerful posts. It comes amid U.S. pressure for the incoming government to deal with charges of Shi’ite hit squads operating with the Interior Ministry police.

American plans to begin withdrawing troops depend on the success of Iraqis in forming a government and the ability of police and the Iraqi army to battle insurgents and criminals without U.S. help.

This month saw 67 Americans killed, the highest U.S. death toll in Iraq this year.

Iraq’s national security adviser, Mowaffak al-Rubaie, said yesterday that American troops would probably be gone from Iraq by mid-2008 as the Iraqi forces they are training take over from them.

Mr. Rubaie told the Reuters news service that he also expected the roughly 133,000 U.S. troops to be cut to less than 100,000 by year’s end and an “overwhelming majority” of them to have left by the end of 2007 under a U.S.-Iraqi plan for progressively handing over security.

Newly elected lawmakers on April 20 resolved a dispute over who should be prime minister, when Mr. al-Jaafari offered to step aside for Mr. al-Maliki. Both are members of the Dawa party.

Both Kurds and Sunnis had opposed Mr. al-Jaafari because of his inability to bring Shi’ite militias under control and curb corruption.

Mr. al-Maliki won the crucial support of Iraq’s most powerful Shi’ite cleric, Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, who issued a statement Thursday calling on militias to disband.

“Weapons must be exclusively in the hands of the government forces, and these forces must be built on a proper national basis so that their loyalty is to the country alone, and not to political or other sides,” the Associated Press quoted the ayatollah’s office as saying.

Matt Sherman, recently back in Washington after two years as deputy senior adviser to Iraq’s Interior Ministry, warned it would be hard to bring the militias under central control.

“From the Iraqi security force perspective, the forces have become politicized and [they] need to de-politicize them, try to bring them under some central authority and accountability — but [they] don’t have control over these guys anymore,” Mr. Sherman told the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

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