Nouri al-Maliki submitted his list today for the new Iraqi cabinet and will finally seat the government, nine months after the disputed Presidential election. A vote on the cabinet is expected in Parliament tomorrow. Maliki had a deadline of this Friday to form a government, or risk losing his opportunity.

The impasse over a new government finally broke over the weekend, when Iyad Allawi, whose Iraqiya list actually won the most members of Parliament in the March elections, agreed to take part in the new cabinet, after he secured some checks on Maliki’s power.

A main condition of the deal is the formation of the National Council for Higher Policies. Although its authority and structure are still being worked out, its creation is said to limit the authority of al-Maliki. Allawi, who edged out al-Maliki in the March vote to gain the most seats, was seen as the man to head the council. His statement confirmed that Sunday.

“The aim of this council is not to weaken or undermine the executive, legislative or judiciary authorities but rather to strengthen them by playing the role of a guarantor to push the agreed-upon programs and reforms in areas of higher policies; working to achieve political agreement; and as a vital institution to exercise true national partnership,” Allawi said.

The Iraqi Parliament also lifted a ban on three Sunni lawmakers elected in March. They had been suspected of membership in the Baath Party.

As Juan Cole notes, the new Iraqi government, unencumbered by UN sanctions and responsible for their own security, has already begun to transform Iraq.

Baghdad announced Friday that security teams had arrested nearly 80 Sunni Arab radicals from 14 terrorist cells in Diyala province, a few of them accused of planning roadside bomb and other attacks on Shiite pilgrims making their way to Karbala for the commemoration of Ashura. This holy day is held in honor of the martyrdom of the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson, Imam Husayn, who was cut down with his followers as they protested oppression at the hands of the Umayyad kingdom in 680 CE [“AD”]. Diyala, an ethnically mixed province abutting Iran where Sunnis have organized to resist rule by hard line Shiite groups, has been the scene of persistent violence since 2003. Al-Hayat reports in Arabic that Sunni young men there have organized themselves into “Youth of Heaven” (Fityan al-Jannah). Only two of those arrested are explicitly accused of planning suicide bombings against Ashura pilgrims, and a lot of the arrests probably involved sweeps against the usual suspects.

Nearly 2 million pilgrims are assembling in Karbala, 1 in 8 of them from abroad, and in past years the Sunni radicals eager to destabilize the new Shiite order in Baghdad had carried out massive bombings and other attacks on this special occasion. This is the first year that the Iraqi security forces are virtually on their own, with no US help on surveillance and intelligence (since the US has stopped actively patrolling, and no longer flies helicopter gunships routinely on missions, US intelligence must have dropped off sharply, and it is the Iraqi security that has the best idea from where threats might emerge). So far, some 17 pilgrims have died in disparate small attacks.

If the Iraqi security forces can handle Ashura, they are on their way to being able to handle pretty much anything. But the question that remains is how expansive the repression against Sunni “radicals” will be, and whether the part-Sunni government coalition can stay together as a result.

David Dayen

David Dayen

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