By Paul Hampton
Iraq has a new prime minister and the prospect of a new government after months of deadlock, but paralysis and sectarianism continues.
On 22 April, Nouri (Jawad) al-Maliki, a Shia and member of the Dawa Islamist party was appointed prime minister. He has 30 days to form a government and then parliament must approve each member of his cabinet by a majority vote.
Maliki fled Iraq in 1980 and lived in Syria. He returned to Iraq after Saddam was toppled in 2003 and was head of the de-Ba’athification committees that purged all former Ba’athists (mostly Sunnis) from government and the civil service. He was also lead negotiator for the Shia United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) in the drafting of the new constitution.
It is unlikely that Maliki will succeed in preventing the slide into civil war, even if he forms a cabinet. Politically Maliki is linked to the young radical Shia cleric, Moqtada Sadr, whose Mehdi Army has been involved in sectarian killings.
Sadr currently controls 35 of the 275 seats in parliament and is the “kingmaker” of Iraqi politics, along with Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.
According to commentator Sami Moubayed on Juan Cole’s well-informed website, Sadr wants the ministries of education, youth, commerce, agriculture and electricity. This would give him wider opportunities to promote Islamic education and recruit to the Mehdi Army.
The Ministry of Commerce would be a source of revenue, while supplying electricity would further entrench his position is one who can provide basic necessities to ordinary Iraqis, in much the same way as Hezbollah did in Lebanon in the 1990s.
Sadr currently controls the ministries of health and transport. The latter gives some indication of the type of rule he would impose. His supporters have put up pictures of Shia clerics at train stations, bus stations and the airport and prohibited the sale of alcohol at the duty-free shop.
In his first policy speech after being appointed prime minister, Maliki said the militia groups must merge with the country's security forces, a call backed by Sistani.
However Maliki does not have the forces to disarm the militias. A deal is likely with Sadr, who says the Mehdi Army is not a militia, but a “social organisation”. And simply absorbing the militias into the regular army and police would give them official cover to carry out attacking their rivals.
The ministry of the interior, headed by Bayan Jabr from the Shia Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution of Iraq (SCIRI), has been accused of allowing precisely this to happen. Sunni politicians say the ministry allows SCIRI militias and the Mehdi army to operate unhindered, sometimes as part of the police force.
The Baghdad morgue currently receives 35-50 bodies a day, many murdered by sectarian militias, both Sunni and Shia. Even members of the new ruling families are not safe. The brother and sister of the newly appointed Iraqi Vice-President, Tariq al-Hashemi (a Sunni) were both assassinated last month.
A new report by the US government’s Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction indicates the terrible mess Iraq is in and failures of the occupation and the government to provide even the most basic services. Two-thirds of the $20bn (£11.5bn) reconstruction money has been spent, according to Special Inspector General Stuart Bowen. The breakdown of spending makes depressing reading: security and justice 34%; electricity 23%; democracy, education 12%; and oil and gas 9%.
Even so, Iraq’s oil industry is currently producing 2.18 million barrels per day, below pre-war levels and the current official oil ministry target of 2.3 million.
The report found that the programme to build 150 primary health care centres had been scaled back. Now 20 centres are promised, although most of the money allocated to the programme has been spent.
The economic situation and the sectarian militias make it very difficult for the labour movement to organise. There have been few strikes in recent months, and many workers have been killed just for going to work. However the labour movement remains the best hope against both the occupation forces and the sectarian “resistance”.