Iraqi leaders reach deal on cabinet reduction

Prime minister reaches agreement with MPs on streamlining cabinet, as US report finds Iraq's security is deteriorating.

    The US is pressing Iraqi officials to decide whether they want a US military presence beyond 2011 [Reuters]

    Nouri al-Maliki, the Iraqi prime minister, has secured an agreement to cut 12 ministries from his shaky coalition government following talks with representatives of the country's parliament. 

    Saturday's deal comes amid debate over whether or not a US military contingent will remain in Iraq beyond a year-end deadline for their withdrawal.

    The controversial issue has been further complicated by the release of a US review that found security in Iraq to be worse than it was a year ago, and the onset of the holy Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, when little in the way of political progress is typically accomplished.

    Maliki's 46-member cabinet, which he had hoped to reduce to 30 ministers, and will now shrink to 34, was the biggest in Iraq's history.

    The original cabinet was only approved in December after protracted negotiations that followed March 2010 elections in which no party gained a clear majority.

    The cabinet is also still lacking ministers in several key posts.

    Al Jazeera's Jane Arraf, reporting from Baghdad, said leaders had agreed to abolish the ministries of marsh lands and tribal affairs, in addition to 10 others, in the hopes of producing a "smaller, more effective government".

    Arraf said there were talks regarding the US presence in Iraq but that there was no agreement.

    Maliki also announced his government would buy 36 F-16 fighters from the US, doubling the number of aircraft it had initially planned to buy.

    Debate postponed

    The premier had sent a letter to MPs outlining his proposal on July 13, noting that the size of the government had become "a burden" on government work and Iraq's budget, as it seeks to rebuild from three decades of war and sanctions, the AFP news agency reported.

    "We all received the letter from Maliki but it was unclear about how the government intends to tackle the pending issues such as lack of security and electricity in Iraq," Alaa Talibani, a parliamentarian from the Kurdish Alliance, told Al Jazeera. 

    "There is also the case of when we will appoint a minster of defence and the minster of interior," he said. 

    "Other points that Maliki needs to be clear on is more explanations about the state of our relationship with our neighbours, notably Kuwait and Iran."

    Iraq's government has been criticised for inaction, with nationwide protests since February against official corruption and ineptitude.

    US officials have pressed their Iraqi counterparts to decide soon on whether or not they want any US military presence beyond 2011.

    Ali Mussawi, media adviser to Maliki, told the AFP news agency on Friday that a meeting of political leaders to debate whether or not any US soldiers should stay on, originally scheduled for Saturday, had been indefinitely delayed.

    Iraqi leaders have already missed a self-imposed July 23 deadline to reach agreement.

    Deteriorating security

    Meanwhile, a US government report released on Saturday concluded that frequent bombings, assassinations and a resurgence in violence by Shia militias have made Iraq more dangerous now than it was just a year ago.

    The findings come during what US Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction Stuart W Bowen Jr called "a summer of uncertainty'' in Baghdad over whether American forces will stay past a year-end withdrawal deadline and continue military aid for the unstable nation.

    "Iraq remains an extraordinarily dangerous place to work,'' Bowen concluded in his 172-page quarterly report to Congress and the White House on progress in Iraq. "It is less safe, in my judgement, than 12 months ago.''

    The report cited the deaths of 15 US soldiers in June, the bloodiest month for the US military in Iraq in two years. Nearly all of them were killed in attacks by Shia militias bent on forcing out American troops.

    It also noted an increase in rockets launched against the heavily fortified Green Zone in Baghdad, where government offices and foreign embassies are located, as well as constant assassination attempts against Iraqi political leaders, security forces and judges.

    Fragile instability

    Bowen accused the US military of glossing over Iraq's instability, noting a statement in late May by the US military that described Iraq's security trends as "very, very positive" - but only when compared to 2007, when the country was on the brink of civil war.

    In contrast, Bowen talked of "the very real fragility'' of national security in Iraq today but a spokesman for the US military in Iraq declined to respond.

    While many officials from both nations believe Iraq is still too unstable to protect itself without US help, keeping a large presence of American troops may be difficult to sell to an Iraqi public tired of war. Maliki has said the decision ultimately will be put to parliament.

    Bowen also said his inspectors published six audits over the last three months, including reviews of US government contractor Anham, LLC, which is based in suburban Washington DC.

    The review found that Anham allowed its subcontractors in Iraq to overcharge the US government, including a $900 bill for a control switch that cost $7.05, and $3,000 for a circuit breaker worth $183.30.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and agencies


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