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Negotiations Stall for Iraqi Cabinet Posts

LIANE HANSEN, host:

This is WEEKENED EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

In Iraq, as dozens more people died this weekend in shootings and bombings, the country's politicians again failed to meet a promise to finish forming a government.

Iraq's parliament was expected to meet today to approve nominees to become the new ministers of Interior and of Defense, but after several hours of heated wrangling the session was postponed until further notice.

This means more than five months after the election and amid a continuing wave of violence, that Iraq's leaders still haven't been able to agree on these two positions, even though the two ministries are critical to the effort to bring security and stability to the country.

We're joined by NPR's Philip Reeves in our Baghdad bureau. Phil, elaborate for us. Another delay? What's the problem this time?

PHILIP REEVES reporting:

Well, the Interior Ministry is supposed to go to a Shia, but we understand that there's an argument within the Shia, who of course dominate parliament, of the choice of candidate. One of the leading contenders for this job, although a Shia, was in the military during the Saddam years, and the Shia were of course widely oppressed by Saddam and some of them therefore object to this candidate.

At the same time they're still wrangling behind the scenes over the defense minister's job. That's been earmarked for Sunni Arabs, a move that's an attempt to try to convince the Sunni Arab minority in Iraq that they do actually have a stake in this new government. But there are arguments there over several of the Sunnis nominees, again over the role that they played in the Iraqi military during the Saddam years.

HANSEN: So how damaging is this now to the new government of Nouri Al-Maliki?

REEVES: Well, he's had in place, he himself has played the role of caretaker in the case of one of the ministries, and one of his deputies, caretaking in the case of the other one. But these ministries are supposed to be crucial to the country's security. I mean they have responsibility for the police and the armed services. So filling these posts with permanent people is obviously important in the effort to try to bring an end to the violence.

So these delays, this continued political infighting, it's not good news for the new government. And it's also damaging to the Prime Minister's mission to try to establish some credibility, to try to prove that this is a decisive and effective government capable of pulling together this country, which many believe is on the verge of falling apart.

HANSEN: All this is happening amid more violence. It's been a very violent weekend once again. Can you give us any details on the latest?

REEVES: Well, you know, I mean accounts of bloodshed sometimes come in at such a pace in Iraq that at times it's actually hard to keep track of them. I mean, today is one of those days.

Just to give you an idea, we started the morning in this bureau following up the death of 28 people in a car bomb in a market in Basra, and also pursuing the fate of four Russian embassy workers kidnapped yesterday in Baghdad. Then came news that at least half a dozen people had been shot at a Sunni mosque in Basra. Police say that they were insurgents who they fired at after the insurgents opened fire on them, although local Sunnis dispute that account. And then very soon after that we started getting accounts that armed men had set up a checkpoint about 130 miles northeast of Baghdad and had dragged some two dozen people from some vehicles there and had shot most of them, and that some of these victims included high school students. At the same time there was news of teachers and a police officer being abducted from a Sunni girl's school south of Baghdad. And you know, I could go on.

But we are in a phase in which the violence does seem to be continuing absolutely unrelentingly.

HANSEN: NPR's Philip Reeves in Baghdad. Philip, thank you very much.

REEVES: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.