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Holes Remain in Iraq's New Government

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Debbie Elliott.

Today, Iraq has a constitutionally elected, full-term national unity government. It's the first time Iraqis can say that in their long history. Still, two critical ministries, defense and interior, are in the hands of caretakers because factions could not agree on who could fill them. NPR's Peter Kenyon reports from Baghdad on today's announcement.

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PETER KENYON reporting:

After more than five months of waiting for the government Iraqis thought they'd elected last December, the audience in Baghdad's well-guarded Green Zone waited another hour as last minute haggling continued. Then, with a prayer for divine guidance to help the new government find common ground, the 37 cabinet members marched to the stage and were approved by a loosely counted show of hands.

But not Saleh al-Mutlaq, leader of a small Sunni alliance, blasted his colleagues and led more than a dozen other Sunnis out of the hall. Mutlaq complained that he had been told to muzzle his criticisms in exchange for another ministry for his group.

Mr. SALEH AL-MUTLAQ (Sunni Alliance Leader): The democracy that they are talking about with the freedom is a false in this country. They don't believe it in. Otherwise, at the minimum what they should allow me to do is to give my views in a free way.

KENYON: The new Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, from the religious Shiite Dawa party, accepted the parliament's approval of his government with a dry listing of his top priorities: security, improving services, widening the political dialogue. Maliki has shown little regard for the flourishes of Arab political rhetoric, which many here find a refreshing change. But others worry that his can-do style is raising expectations that he can deliver on promises that no previous Iraqi government has been able to keep. Maliki says corruption is a major target. In the past, critics say, cabinet members have treated their ministries as giant patronage schemes for slush funds. Maliki made it clear in a news conference that such behavior won't be tolerated.

Mr. NOURI AL-MALIKI (Iraqi Prime Minister): (Through Translator) I told the heads of the various parties that ministers must be efficient, or step aside. We will never permit a poorly performing minister to stay on the job four years.

KENYON: Maliki's first order of business will be to find permanent ministers of Interior and Defense. He himself took the interior slot as a caretaker while one of his deputies is acting defense minister. Maliki has so far been unable to find nominees acceptable to all parties and free of militia ties for these sensitive positions. Meanwhile, Shiite politician Biam Jobber(ph), who is accused of harboring death squads while he headed the Interior Ministry, moves over to finance, a move critics see as an undeserved reward. Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, who will be keeping his job, says there are a lot of parties to please when it comes to appointing interior and defense ministers, but he was also happy to see Iraqis may be breaking the habit of turning to the military every time things get difficult.

Mr. HOSHYAR ZEBARI (Iraqi Foreign Minister): Really there was a tendency to bring in some military people back into Iraqi politics, and that was rejected, that we passed that threshold.

KENYON: Iraqis were generally blasé about their new government, saying once they see peace and quiet and reliable electricity, then they'll embrace the political process. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Baghdad. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.