- The Washington Times - Monday, May 15, 2006

BAGHDAD — Iraqi politicians shut off their cell phones and went behind closed doors yesterday, trying to ram through an agreement on who will form the next government.

Meetings began in the morning and lasted late into the afternoon, party officials said.

Baha al-Araji, a top Shi’ite lawmaker aligned with firebrand cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, said he expected that party leaders would begin to finalize the list of Cabinet members by today.

“I think we will sort it out,” he told The Washington Times. “I think we will be ready to agree to everything in two days.”

As the political haggling went on in Baghdad, military operations and other attacks continued across Iraq.

The U.S. military said two soldiers died Sunday when their helicopter was shot down during fighting in Yusufiyah. Two Marines assigned to Regimental Combat Team 7 were killed the same day in enemy action in western Anbar province.

Prime Minister-designate Nouri al-Maliki has been pushing hard to form a new Cabinet, which U.S. officials hope will bring a degree of calm to the Iraqi streets and undercut support for the Sunni insurgency.

But since the December elections, party leaders have lurched from crisis to crisis, unable to agree on who should lead the country for the next four years.

The Oil, Finance, Interior and Defense ministries were proving difficult to fill, said Qassim Dawood, who belongs to the independent list of lawmakers who make up the main Shi’ite alliance.

“The last two are proving the most complicated, which hopefully we can sort out in the next 48 hours,” Mr. Dawood said. “These two posts are very sensitive as they are directly connected to security.

“Everyone is expecting these two will be filled by nonsectarian people with a national vision,” he said.

Mr. Dawood has been mentioned as a candidate for the Interior Ministry position. He said he had not received an official offer of the post.

The latest shock was a walkout from the talks by al Fadila al Islamiya (Islamic Virtue Party), a small faction within the Shi’ite alliance that apparently insisted that one of its members lead the Oil Ministry.

“The naming of the oil minister is premature. We have a crisis with Fadila, and we don’t want them to be out of the government,” Mr. Dawood said.

Mr. al-Maliki technically has until Monday to form a Cabinet, 30 days after he was nominated to take the place of Ibrahim al-Jaafari, the current government leader.

Mr. Dawood said large caucus meetings as well as several smaller side meetings took place yesterday.

Although several politicians have complained about U.S. interference in the process — the administration had made clear it wanted Mr. al-Jaafari replaced — Mr. Dawood said the Americans were trying to play a “positive role.”

One party member involved in the talks said some kind of announcement could be made as early as today, but he did not expect a final decision until just before Monday.

“You know, it is Iraqi style. If the deadline is midnight, then the decision will come at 15 minutes before midnight,” he said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

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