U.S. President Barack Obama has congratulated Iraq on the formation of a new government -- a step that has brought an end to nine months of political deadlock after inconclusive elections.
In a written statement, Obama said the December 20 vote by Iraq's parliament, the Council of Representatives, to approve the government was what he called "a significant moment in Iraq's history and a major step forward in advancing national unity."
The White House said Obama and Vice President Joe Biden had both spoken by telephone to Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who is now beginning his second term in office.
Biden said in his own statement that Iraq's leaders had succeeded in agreeing what he called "an inclusive, national partnership government that reflects the results of Iraq's elections" in March.
The United Nations Security Council has also welcomed the formation of the new government. In a written statement, the Security Council called on Iraqi leaders to continue to pursue what it described as a "federal, democratic, pluralistic and unified Iraq based on the rule of law and respect for human rights."
Maliki will lead a government comprised of members of all of Iraq's major political and sectarian factions, including Shi'a, Sunnis, Kurds, and Sadrists.
The months between the March election and parliament's vote have been filled with bitter political infighting, and Maliki told lawmakers before they voted on the new government that the process had been arduous.
"I have found that the task of forming a government of national unity is the most difficult one in a country of such diverse ethnical, sectarian, and party affiliations," he said.
Now The Work Begins
Despite the show of unity, not everything went smoothly. Coalition partners prevented Maliki from naming 13 of his 42 cabinet ministers amid disagreements over who would receive the posts.
The fragile coalition is now charged with making progress on the major challenges facing Iraq -- including massive rebuilding after seven years of war and smoothing sectarian tensions that still flare into violence from time to time.
Lawmakers will also have to shepherd the country through the withdrawal of U.S. troops, which the White House has scheduled to happen at the end of 2011.
The vote was televised nationally and afterward, Maliki set out an ambitious agenda for lawmakers. He pledged to lead a government that would combat terrorism, address still-festering sectarian divisions, and repair relations with neighboring Sunni-dominated Arab countries, who are largely suspicious of the Shi'ite-led government.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a statement that "Iraq's leaders must now take the next steps to tackle the many important challenges still facing their nation and realize a brighter future for all Iraqis."
She added, "The United States will continue working with our Iraqi partners at each stage to build a strong, long-lasting relationship between our countries that promotes security and prosperity in Iraq, and stability throughout the region."
British Foreign Secretary William Hague also issued a statement of support. The agreement, he said, "will reinforce stability in Iraq and allow Iraq's political leaders to work together for the benefit of their country and people. We hope the new government will now focus on resolving the pressing economic, political and security issues still facing Iraq."
The country's March 7 elections did not give any single bloc a majority in the 325-member parliament, which triggered months of jockeying for power.
Maliki's Shi'ite coalition came in a close second to the Sunni-backed coalition led by former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, but in the end it was Maliki who was able to gather enough support to keep his office.
Allawi said on December 21 that his bloc would be a full partner in the new government. "We wish the government success in its task to meet demands of the Iraqi people, who have waited a long time to see this accomplishment," he said.
"We, as the Al-Iraqiyah bloc, declare our full support for this government, and we will play an active, productive, and cooperative role. We will also work to bolster trust as long as we find a similar spirit from our partners in the political process," Allawi added.
A key question leading up to the government formation was the role that Allawi's coalition would play.
U.S. officials had lobbied heavily for Allawi to be included in some way, fearing that leaving him and his Al-Iraqiyah coalition out of the government entirely or excluding them from meaningful roles would incite a return to the type of sectarian violence that at one point almost tore the country apart.
State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said Washington had not interfered even as the months of political deadlock dragged on. "There have been suggestions that [the United States] either did or should have dictated the terms of the government. We did nothing of the kind," he said. "We supported a process, as did other countries from the region, and ultimately it was Iraqis themselves who got together, worked through the political challenges, and have formed a government."
Allawi is slated to head a new council overseeing foreign policy and security-related issues, but there are already disagreements between his coalition and Maliki's about how much power the council will have.
Al-Iraqiyah only recently dropped a demand that Allawi be given the first opportunity to form a government. Allawi's concession came after he was assured that Sunnis would not be excluded.
The 13 cabinet positions still to be decided reflect the challenges Maliki faces in trying to include all the country's sects and political affiliations in the new government.
He has named acting ministers to fill those ministries after disputes with followers of Muqtada al-Sadr, the radical, anti-American Shi'ite cleric, over who among them would get a cabinet post.
It was Sadr's support -- in a deal brokered by Iran -- that paved the way for Maliki to build the framework for a majority coalition.
The Sadrist alliance holds 40 of parliament's 325 seats.
written by Heather Maher, with agency reports