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Sunday, April 23, 2006 - Page updated at 12:33 AM

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New Iraqi leader confirmed

Knight Ridder Newspapers

BAGHDAD, Iraq — Even as a new prime minister was selected Saturday, parliament members said they foresee challenges before they form a competent government — a sentiment reiterated by the U.S. envoy here.

More than four months after the national elections, the withdrawal of U.S. troops is still a distant prospect, as the government faces the task of leading a nation caught in a storm of sectarian violence.

"Any withdrawal of the American forces now will lead the country into a civil war," said the new Sunni vice president, Tariq al-Hashimi. "The last American soldier will not leave the country unless we have a fully prepared army."

A twice-delayed parliamentary session confirmed the new Prime Minister Jawad al-Maliki, a strong Shiite politician from the interim premier's Dawa Party, and reappointed Jalal Talabani, the Kurdish interim president, to the post. Al-Hashimi and Adil Abdul-Mahdi are the vice presidents and Mahmoud al-Mashhadani, a Sunni Islamist, took his seat as speaker of the parliament.

Zalmay Khalilzad, U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, called the highly anticipated session an "important accomplishment," asking the international community to join in supporting the Iraqi government as it faced the great challenges of "establishing security and the rule of law."

"This was a necessary step," Khalilzad said, referring to the parliamentary session. "There is a lot more that needs to be done."

Al-Maliki has one month to present a Cabinet to the parliament.

In the coming months the most pressing issues are calming the violence and the political wrangling over who will lead the ministries — specifically the Ministry of Interior and the Ministry of Defense — said parliament members.

Sunnis have accused the Shiite-run Interior Ministry of tolerating death squads that target Sunni civilians. Army and police ranks are believed to be infiltrated by militias.

The current interior minister belongs to the largest Shiite party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, believed to operate a militia. U.S. officials have insisted the next minister have no ties to militias.

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Another militia, the Mahdi Army, is controlled by radical anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who supported al-Jaafari for another term. Al-Sadr refuses to disband his force unless other militias are abolished and the army and police prove capable of protecting Shiites from Sunni extremists.

The security forces are the key to creating a stable Iraq and setting up the exit for U.S. troops. More than 2,300 troops have been killed since the war began amid growing demands from Americans to bring the troops home.

Five American soldiers died Saturday in roadside bombings south of Baghdad, and Marines killed four insurgents in a gunbattle in Ramadi — clear signs of the ongoing security crisis. Today, 11 mortar rounds exploded in central Baghdad, including three in the heavily guarded Green Zone that killed six Iraqi civilians and wounded two, police said.

In Washington, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice heralded the news of a permanent government as an opportunity for stability in Iraq. But she said the lack of security in Iraq was of "great concern," and it was crucial that the ministry of interior created a nonsectarian police force.

In an uncharacteristically commanding exit speech, interim Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari told the parliament to "keep your eye on every minister."

The session, which lasted about three hours Saturday, quickly confirmed names already released by the political blocs after weeks of backroom bartering.

Al-Mashhadani, an Islamic activist who'd been imprisoned under Saddam Hussein's regime, made his political debut as speaker of the parliament.

Lightening the mood at the session, he drew laughter as he called parliament members Arabic terms of endearment, joked that the only black mark on his record was bribing the courts to reduce his death sentence from the former regime, promising never to do it again. His first act as speaker would be to fix the air conditioning in the sweltering room of more than 300 people, he said.

His appointment to the post passed with only 29 votes, 110 parliament members left their ballots empty in a perceived rejection of the preordained appointment.

Saleh al-Mutlak was nominated for the post but withdrew, saying the government was based on "sectarian polarization." Al-Mutlak referred to the election of leadership positions, which he said had already been decided between the political blocs, based on religious sects and ethnicities. Political slates in the parliament are largely divided along sectarian and ethnic lines.

Parliament members were cautiously optimistic while acknowledging the burden the new government would carry. On Saturday night in central Baghdad, Iraqis shot guns into the air in celebration. More than three years after the toppling of Saddam Hussein, they had a permanent government.

Information from The Associated Press is included in this report.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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