Efforts to end Iraq's eight-month political stalemate moved significantly toward conclusion as the prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, was formally asked to form a national unity government embracing the country's bitterly-divided factions.
Maliki was offered the chance of a second term by the Iraqi president, Jalal Talabani, at an official ceremony attended by many of the squabbling politicians now being asked to set their differences aside.
"We are adding today another democratic tradition based on Article 76 of the constitution by asking the candidate of the largest parliamentary bloc, our brother Mr. Nuri al-Maliki, to form a new government, which will be an image of the real national partnership that will not exclude anyone," Talabani said. "We hope that all the political blocs would adopt the principles of efficiency, professionalism and integrity when they select their candidates for the cabinet."
The request came two weeks after Shi'ite, Sunni, and Kurdish leaders agreed to divide up the top political jobs in a deal that would give Iraq the government it has lacked since last March's inconclusive parliamentary election.
No Easy Task
Maliki now has 30 days to cobble together a government from the different groupings, a task made tougher by lingering mutual animosities and the threat of a descent into further sectarian violence.
Accepting Talabani's invitation, Maliki acknowledged facing obstacles and said he needed cross-factional support.
"The task that I was designated to shoulder is not an easy one, especially in the current situation witnessed by our dear country, Iraq," Maliki said. "No one can do it alone. We have to work together and mobilize all the potentials without exception in order to succeed and take our country out of this critical stage."
He urged the "great Iraqi people in all its sects, religions and ethnicities" to rise above past disputes and come together in the interests of national unity.
The November 25 offer to Maliki was a virtual formality after Talabani -- a Kurd who effectively became kingmaker in the negotiations to end the political standoff -- had publically asked him to form a new government after he was reelected president two weeks ago.
Questions Of Trust
Among the obstacles facing Maliki, leader of the Shi'ite State of Law alliance, is the distrust between him and his chief rival, the former prime minister, Iyad Allawi, leader of the mainly Sunni and secular Iraqiya bloc, which actually won the most seats in the parliamentary election but fell far short of a majority.
One of the prime minister's most sensitive tasks will be deciding what posts to give to Iraqiya. If the Sunni population believes it is excluded from key positions and kept from a meaningful role in government, it could trigger a return to sectarian violence. The oil and finance ministries are believed to be the two most pivotal posts in the new government, as Iraq seeks to rebuild its economy after years of violence and turmoil.
Maliki will also have to weigh what role to give to followers of anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. That Shi'ite cleric's support for Maliki back in September was a result of pressure from neighboring Iran and is considered vital to securing Maliki a second term.
But the Sadrists' anti-American stance, ties to Iran and their disturbing history as one of the major players in the country's sectarian violence, poses challenges about what cabinet posts to give them.
written by Robert Tait based on agency reports