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Iraq: Sunni Representation Bedevils New Government

The absence yesterday of outgoing President Ghazi Ajil Al-Yawir was seen as a sign of Sunni discontent. Iraq has sworn in a new government, but many influential Sunni leaders remain outside it. They include outgoing President Ghazi Ajil al-Yawir, who stayed away from yesterday's swearing-in ceremony. Analysts say that without credible Sunnis in the government it will be difficult to reach out to this disaffected group. More importantly, without Sunni participation it could be very difficult to undercut the insurgency.

Prague, 4 May 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The new Iraqi cabinet sworn in yesterday remains incomplete, with several key ministerial positions -- including those for oil and defense -- yet to be filled.

The partly formed cabinet reflects one of Iraq’s most persistent problems: how to bring in representatives from the minority Sunni community. The community dominated Iraq under former leader Saddam Hussein, but mostly boycotted the January election of the new National Assembly.

The Shi’a coalition that won most seats in the election is willing to give several key posts to Sunnis, including the crucial Defense Ministry. But negotiators so far have failed to agree on who should have the post.

One sign of the extent of the disagreements may have been the absence of outgoing President al-Yawir, a Sunni, from the swearing-in ceremony for the cabinet.

Many observers took his absence as a sign of overall Sunni dissatisfaction with the process of forming the government.

But Yahia Said, a researcher on Iraq and other transitional nations at the London School of Economics, says al-Yawir’s absence could equally be due to a rivalry for power now going on among different Sunni groups.

"Al-Yawir is not a representative in any way of the vast majority of Sunnis, said Said. "He got into parliament because he was voted for by his tribe. He's not close in any way to those involved with the insurgency. [Sunnis] don't necessarily accept him as a legitimate and authoritative representative."

Said says three or four Sunni groups appear to be vying to have representatives in the government.

He also says one difficulty with resolving the deadlock is that politicians have no criteria for selecting between the rival groups.

"Because Sunnis largely boycotted the elections and really the only people who voted is the tribe of Ghazi al-Yawir, it is very difficult," he said. "There is no objective process to selecting Sunni representatives for government positions or for any other positions."

The lack of Sunni representation concerns not only the Sunni community but all of Iraq. Insurgents are most active in the Sunni areas and U.S. and Iraqi officials have hoped that a credible Sunni presence in the government would help curtail the violence.

Said says the new government needs not just Sunnis but influential political figures to put down the insurgency.

"You don't need just any Sunni participation because you have Ghazi al-Yawir as vice president," he said. "But you need a particular kind of Sunni participation that will cut, undermine the insurgency. So you need people who are close to the insurgency being involved in the government."

Meanwhile, David Hartwell, a Middle East expert with the London-based publication "Jane's Sentinel Security Assessments," says there are additional problems bedeviling efforts to choose Sunni members for the cabinet.

He says that while Shi’a and Kurdish politicians want to bring Sunnis into the government, they are reluctant to take on board those Sunnis who collaborated with the former regime. Most influential Sunnis, he said, "are the same influential Sunnis who were around under Saddam Hussein."

The analyst says that the Shi’a majority wants to pursue a de-Baathification campaign and has criticized the former cabinet for taking former Ba'ath party members into the government, police, and army. He says this negative attitude leaves only small numbers of Sunni politicians, who usually have little influence, acceptable.

Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Ja'fari, a Shi’a, sought to strike a conciliatory note yesterday. Addressing insurgents, he said that Iraqi people "are ready to forgive you provided you have no blood on your hands."

But Hartwell says that, psychologically, it is difficult for Sunnis -- who actually ruled Iraq from the very creation of the state -- to accept the new reality of power being in the hands of Shi’a and Kurds.

The partly formed cabinet sworn in yesterday consists of 15 Shi’a, seven Kurds, four Sunni, and one Christian.

The Sunnis hold only 17 seats in the 275-member National Assembly. That number of seats underrepresents the Sunni proportion of Iraq’s population, which is estimated at 15 to 20 percent.

According to Iraq's interim constitution, al-Ja'fari must make appointments to the empty posts by 7 May. If he fails, he will be compelled to resign and the president will have to appoint another prime minister.