Loyalists of radical Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada Sadr have demanded control of a greater share of Iraq’s public-service ministries, in what many worry is a trend toward a government more concerned with satisfying demands for political patronage than serving Iraqis.
Prime Minister-designate Nouri Maliki, a Shiite, has three weeks to form a government acceptable to rival Sunni Muslim Arab and Kurdish blocs.
But already ministries are being divided up during bruising backroom negotiations according to a sectarian and ethnic formula that parallels election results: 14 posts for Shiites, eight for Kurds, seven for Sunnis and three for a secular coalition. Some warn that it could be a recipe for disaster.
Izzat Shahbandar, an Iraqi lawmaker loyal to former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, said that the proposed Cabinet divisions had “established the basis for an ethnic and sectarian system that will lead Iraq to hell.”
Sadr’s followers, who control as many as 35 of 275 parliament seats, representing working-class Shiites in eastern Baghdad and the country’s south, already hold the ministries of health and transportation. But they are eyeing education, youth, commerce, agriculture and electricity as possible additions to their portfolio.
Iraqi and Western officials have criticized the ministries under Sadr’s control during the last year as corrupt and ideological. Doctors, nurses and pharmacists say the health system is poorly run and deteriorating. Sadr’s loyalists in the Transportation Ministry have removed alcohol from airport duty-free shops and put portraits of ayatollahs on the billboard in front of the Baghdad train station.
The thirtysomething cleric and his fast-growing movement have become a formidable political force. They agreed to forgo claims on the important ministries of interior, defense, finance, oil and foreign affairs and instead focused on building up power and patronage through public-sector jobs and services.
“We prefer to control only those ministries that serve the Iraqi people to build a strong base,” said Fadhil Sharih, one of Sadr’s deputies. “We will also be directly involved with the Iraqi society, to listen to their needs and serve them.”
The formula is similar to the tack taken by Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Palestinian territories.
U.S. officials would like to see technocrats without strong sectarian affiliations in charge of the government, but face strong challenges. For example, several Shiite political parties are laying claim to the Oil Ministry, but Iraqi professionals and Western officials want the Cabinet position to revert to former interim Oil Minister Thamir Ghadhban.
In some cases, politicians offer to resolve disputes over ministries by creating new titles that risk increasing an already bloated public sector and diluting executive power. Faced with competing Kurdish and Sunni Arab claims on the Foreign Ministry, for example, negotiators are toying with the idea of creating a separate ministry that deals specifically with Arab countries.
Security posts remain the biggest stumbling block in forming the government. Sunnis and Shiites have an agreement to divvy up the defense and interior ministries between themselves. But insiders say Allawi, a perennial U.S. favorite for sensitive security posts, might chair a newly created Cabinet-level committee that could override the prime minister on major decisions.
Amid the frenzied haggling over Cabinet posts, rank-and-file legislators were scheduled to meet today to discuss the potentially combustible issue of revising the constitution and to take up some procedural matters.
Pressed to keep pace with deadlines, Iraq’s political factions last year failed to resolve fundamental constitutional questions, including Iraq’s identity and the extent of autonomy granted to regions.
Iraq’s main Sunni Arab political group, the Iraqi Islamic Party, agreed to call on its supporters to vote in October’s constitutional referendum on condition that the charter allow for a four-month revision period.
“I think the amendments should be made early so we can move on,” said Wael Abdul Latif, a parliamentarian and judge loyal to Allawi. “I believe this will be a lot simpler than drafting the constitution.”
Iraq’s Sunnis and secular nationalists, many of them former loyalists to Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party, cite more than two dozen changes they’d like to see in the charter. Some are semantic, but others call for fundamental shifts, including a stronger central government and removal of language condemning Iraq’s 35 years of Baathist rule.
Iraqis worry about renewing the harrowing negotiations that characterized the constitutional debate, which dragged on for months and undermined the power of the interim government.
“We are talking about core issues that form the basis for the constitution,” said Jinan Jasim Ubaidi, a Shiite legislator. “I am sure many disagreements and much delay will occur.”
Times staff writers Raheem Salman, Zainab Hussein, Caesar Ahmed, Saif Hameed and Shamil Aziz contributed to this report.