BAGHDAD, Iraq – Iraq’s political leaders agreed Wednesday on the composition of a new government, marking a significant step toward ending nearly three months of political bickering that has undermined much of the goodwill generated by Iraq’s historic democratic election in January.

Announcing the breakthrough, Prime Minister-designate Ibrahim al-Jaafari said he would not name names until the Cabinet is unveiled today to the National Assembly, where it will have to be approved by a majority of the 275 legislators.

The long-awaited news was clouded by the assassination in Baghdad of one of the delegates to the assembly, the first killing of a legislator since the election results were announced in February. Lamia Abed Khadouri al-Sakri, a representative of Ayad Allawi’s Iraqi alliance, was shot to death at her home in the Biqoon neighborhood by gunmen who knocked at her door and then opened fire.

Al-Jaafari said he had presented the names to Iraq’s three-member presidency council for approval, considered a formality, ahead of the announcement to the assembly. The presidency council comprises Iraq’s president, Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani, and two vice presidents, a Shiite and a Sunni.

The assembly’s endorsement is also almost certain, because al-Jaafari’s Shiite coalition, the United Iraqi Alliance, holds a narrow majority of seats in the legislature and because the Kurds, who hold 70 seats, negotiated the deal in partnership with al-Jaafari.

However, last-minute objections by Shiite legislators to some of the Sunnis chosen by al-Jaafari suggested that further wrangling may yet defer the government’s final approval.

Al-Jaafari attributed the long delay in forming the government to his efforts to reach out to other communities, including Allawi’s group as well as the once-dominant Sunni minority whose boycott of the election left the community with little representation in the assembly.

“This government could have been concluded in a week by the two major groups, but it was our commitment and desire to see an inclusive government,” he said.

The government will be broadly representative of all the country’s sects and religions, al-Jaafari promised, with posts going to Shiites, Kurds, Sunnis, Christians and Turkomen. Seven of the ministers will be women, he said.

Unconfirmed reports from Iraqi legislators and media said the Shiites would take 17 ministries, the Kurds 8, the Sunnis 6 and the Christian and Turkomen minorities one each. Allawi’s Iraqi group will not be represented, Shiite officials said, after intensive negotiations to offer him representation in the Cabinet collapsed. Instead, Allawi is expected to take on the role of opposition leader in the assembly.

If the government is approved, al-Jaafari will be officially appointed as the first democratically elected prime minister in more than half a century. He has until May 7 to win the assembly’s approval, after which a new candidate will be given a chance.

Whenever it comes, the installation of a government will be greeted with a sigh of relief by many ordinary Iraqis, who have watched with dismay as their elected leaders have been reduced to battling one another for the most prestigious jobs in the government while the insurgency worsens and reconstruction falters.

The proposed Cabinet’s structure reflects the bitter haggling, much of it nakedly sectarian, that preceded the agreement.

The new government will have three deputy prime ministers, one each for the Shiites, Kurds and Sunnis. There are currently two deputy prime ministers, but a third was added to end infighting over the two posts between the three sects.

Al-Jaafari said he may consider adding a fourth deputy prime minister, depending on how the list is received by the assembly, suggesting the names on his list could yet change.

Some have already been circulated in the media and among legislators, including the disgraced former Pentagon protege, Ahmad Chalabi, who is tipped as a likely deputy prime minister.

Al-Jaafari confirmed that the powerful and prestigious post of defense minister will be given to a Sunni, in an effort to appease Sunni anxieties about their marginalization from the political process since the fall of Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-dominated regime.

Al-Jaafari also may be calculating that having a Sunni in the position will help defuse the Sunni-dominated insurgency, which is believed to comprise many former army officers and foot soldiers who lost their jobs when the U.S. occupation authorities dissolved the army.

Sunnis are likely to be dismayed, however, by signs that the Shiite alliance is likely to adopt an uncompromising stance toward Sunnis once associated with the Baath Party.

Though al-Jaafari has said he does not want to embark on an extensive purge of Sunnis who were once Baathists, Shiite legislators rebelled against some of his original nominees Wednesday, citing their past Baathist connections.

The United Iraqi Alliance hastily formed a committee to vet Sunni candidates, and at least two of al-Jaafari’s nominees were ruled unacceptable because they were deemed to have Baathist connections, said Shiite legislator Jawad Maliki, a senior official with al-Jaafari’s Dawa Party, who sat on the committee. They have been replaced with other Sunni candidates, he said.

Saadoun Dulaime, a former general in Saddam Hussein’s army who fell out with him and fled into exile, has been billed as the most likely candidate for defense minister. But his name also was among those said to have been subjected to last-minute challenges.

Salama Khafajee, a Shiite legislator, said some coalition members are pushing for the Cabinet to be submitted first to a vote by the United Iraqi Alliance legislators before it is unveiled to the assembly, though senior alliance officials said that would not happen.

The mini-rebellion indicated that al-Jaafari, who was nominated for the prime minister’s job only after a fierce power struggle within the Shiite alliance, will have to tread carefully when it comes to holding his own majority in the National Assembly together, if his government is approved.


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