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Shiites Take Firm Hold of Power as Government Nears Completion

Times Staff Writers

As the nation reels from a daily frenzy of car-bomb attacks and ambushes, Iraq’s new Cabinet is expected to be sworn in today with emboldened Shiite Muslim lawmakers signaling that there are limits to their willingness to share power with other groups.

The post of defense minister, reserved for the Sunni Muslim minority, remained vacant after the powerful Shiite bloc’s rejection of at least three Sunni candidates. Shiite legislators have stated flatly that there will be no attempts at reconciliation with anyone linked to the Sunni-led insurgency or tied to abuses by Saddam Hussein’s former Baath Party.

“We will not be blackmailed into handing the authority back to them to appease them,” Hussein Shahristani, first deputy speaker of the National Assembly and a leading Shiite figure, said in an interview here Monday. “We are not going to reward the terrorists and insurgents by appointing them into government positions. I think anyone who has committed crimes against Iraqis, whether under Saddam or after his fall, should be punished.”

Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari, the top-ranking Shiite lawmaker, is in the defense post until a suitable candidate is selected. A week ago, Jafari’s future seemed cloudy, but he submitted a partial Cabinet last week to the assembly, gaining an overwhelming vote of confidence and beating a May 7 deadline that would have unseated him.

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The rejection of Sunni candidates for the Defense Ministry job comes as the Shiite majority in the assembly is insisting on controlling each of the more than two dozen parliamentary committees, including the key panel responsible for writing Iraq’s constitution. Shiite lawmakers are also seeking to purge former Baathists from the government.

The Bush administration is urging moderation, fearing that such hard-line tactics could bolster the insurgents, most of whom are thought to be Sunnis embittered by their loss of power, prestige and employment. Much of the Sunni heartland of central, northern and western Iraq remains an insurgent battleground beyond direct government control.

As the squabbling over Cabinet jobs continues, the central question of “whether Iraqis of different stripes can live with each other,” in the words of one senior U.S. official here, remains unresolved.

“Where you draw the line and say who’s in and who’s out is going to have a big impact at the end of the day,” said the U.S. official, who declined to be named because of Washington’s sensitive position here. “This is high-wire politics. It’s either a spectacular success or you fall off the wire. There’s not a lot of middle ground.”

Sunnis, who largely stayed away from the historic Jan. 30 vote for the assembly, complain they are being squeezed by a Shiite power grab.

“This country cannot tolerate such selfishness,” said Salih Mutlaq, part of a moderate Sunni group negotiating with the Shiites. “If they will continue insisting on this sectarian trend, then disaster and fire will result.”

Since Thursday’s announcement of the Cabinet, insurgents have detonated more than 25 car bombs, killing at least 120 people, including 11 U.S. troops. On Monday, guerrillas set off at least five car bombs, including three in Baghdad, the capital, killing at least nine people.

The Shiite leadership says its offer to the Sunnis of half a dozen ministries, including defense, is generous considering that Sunnis boycotted the election. Sunnis have also been allotted a vice presidency and the deputy prime minister post.

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Fewer than 20 Sunnis sit in the 275-member National Assembly, though Sunnis represent as much as 20% of the population. Shiites are believed to account for 60%, though there has been no accurate census for years.

There were indications Monday of continued partisan wrangling: Ethnic Kurds were pushing for retaining the human rights ministry, which had been given to Sunnis, and at least one Kurdish leader was said to have objected to Jafari’s plan to name a member of the Turkmen minority as a deputy prime minister. Kurds and Turkmens are at odds over control of the northern city of Kirkuk and its nearby oil fields.

Kurds, who make up about 17% of the population, have 75 seats in the assembly, while the leading Shiite bloc controls 140.

Shiites have also captured about half of the 36 Cabinet slots in the new government, including the key interior, oil and finance ministries. The Shiite ranks also include the prime minister, Jafari; one of two vice presidents, Adel Abdul Mehdi; and one of four deputy prime ministers, Ahmad Chalabi.

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Kurds are set to head at least seven ministries, including the foreign and planning ministries. President Jalal Talabani is a Kurd, as is Rosh Shawais, a deputy prime minister.

But the reality is sinking in that what has emerged in Iraq is a government that is likely to mark a fundamental departure from anything Iraq -- or the Sunni-dominated Arab world -- has seen. Shiites here clearly believe their time has come.

U.S. officials, who are widely believed to have favored the more secular Iyad Allawi for prime minister, appear resigned to work with a Shiite bloc that has longtime links to the Islamic Republic of Iran and, in some cases, a history of anti-Americanism.

“These folks are kind of rambunctious to get back in and take power -- and people are concerned,” said another U.S. official in Baghdad. “There are many reasons why we marched into the place, but certainly our efforts in the last two years have been to stand up a democratic government that is contributing to stability in the region. I see no reason why the government that is likely to be formed is not a step in that direction. Like it or not, you have an Islamist government.”

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Large-scale purges of former Baathists and others considered disloyal are widely anticipated in government ministries, especially in the pivotal interior and defense ministries. Shiite leaders have charged that the Interior Ministry, which controls police and internal security, is riddled with guerrilla infiltrators and Baathist sympathizers, including many placed on the payroll since the Jan. 30 election.

Although they say they want to include their underrepresented “Sunni brothers,” top Shiite lawmakers are already signaling a major departure from Allawi’s administration, which tried to reach out to insurgent sympathizers and welcomed ex-Baathists into the government.

By contrast, the Shiites now in control in Baghdad were underrepresented in Allawi’s government. Today, Allawi’s slate is shut out of the new Cabinet. His bloc has 40 seats in the assembly.

Shiite lawmakers have largely ignored Talabani’s suggestion that insurgents be granted amnesty.

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“It is not reasonable for us to rely on people who committed crimes to rule the country,” said Jawad Maliki, an assembly member. “Those who call themselves resistance and carry weapons are not resistance. They are terrorists.”

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Times staff writers Suhail Ahmad, Caesar Ahmed and Zainab Hussein contributed to this report.


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