Iraq’s president has asked incumbent prime minister Nouri al-Maliki to form a new government.
The invitation is part of a deal to end an eight-month deadlock over who would lead the country through the next four years, including the departure of the final American troops.
The long-awaited request from President Jalal Talabani sets in motion a 30-day timetable to accomplish the task of finding a team that includes all of Iraq’s rival factions. Mr Talabani said on TV: “We ask Nouri Kamal al-Maliki to form the new government that we hope will be a government of national partnership.”
The new government is expected to include all the major factions, including the Kurds, Shia political parties aligned with Iran, and a Sunni-backed bloc that believes it should have been leading the next government.
Many of the politicians were in the room with Mr al-Maliki and Mr Talabani when the announcement was made in a show of unity that belies the country’s often divisive politics. Mr al-Maliki will have to find substantial roles for all of those factions or risk having them leave his government, a possibly destabilising blow for Iraq’s still fragile democracy.
The announcement was largely a formality, coming after Mr Talabani was elected on November 11 and publicly asked Mr al-Maliki to form the next government at the time. Mr Talabani then had 15 days to formally extend the offer, giving Mr al-Maliki some extra time to work out the details.
The announcement underscores a stunning comeback for Mr al-Maliki, whose State of Law coalition came in second in the March 7 election to the Sunni-backed bloc led by former prime minister Ayad Allawi. But neither bloc gained the 163-seat majority necessary to govern, which translated into an intensive period of political jockeying.
As the political discussions dragged on, so did violence, raising concerns that insurgents were trying to exploit the political vacuum to bring about more sectarian violence. Mr Allawi and his Iraqiya coalition were never able to gather enough support from Iraq’s political parties, which are still defined largely by their sectarian allegiances.
Although Mr Allawi is a Shia, his largely Sunni coalition was viewed with suspicion by many in Iraq’s political scene who still harbour deep resentment over the Sunni-dominant government that ruled Iraq under Saddam Hussein.