BAGHDAD — Iraq's incumbent prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, was officially tasked Thursday with forming a new government to lead the country through a pivotal four-year period marked by the planned withdrawal of the last American troops.
With 30 days to name his Cabinet, Maliki will need to assemble a team that comprises all of Iraq's squabbling factions in order to break an eight-month political impasse that has fueled insurgent violence and widespread public dissatisfaction.
"I call on all political blocs, politicians and the people of Iraq to work toward looking past their differences in order to achieve a secure and stable Iraq," Maliki said in remarks broadcast on state television.
The announcement had been expected since earlier this month, when Iraqi President Jalal Talabani said he would ask Maliki to form a government. The start of the 30-day clock sets into motion intense jockeying among Maliki's fellow Shiite Muslims as well as politicians from the Sunni Arab and Kurdish minorities for key government posts, particularly control of security matters.
Maliki's often heavy-handed political tactics dismayed the United States and alienated many Shiite allies during his first term. In parliamentary elections in March his political bloc finished a close second to the secular Iraqiyya coalition led by former prime minister Iyad Allawi — and far short of the 163-seat majority required to lead the new government.
However, Allawi's fractious coalition failed to win the backing of rival groups, and Maliki staged a comeback after regaining the support of his leading Shiite rivals, including the populist anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Earlier this month, Maliki also agreed to a list of demands from Iraq's influential Kurdish minority that would include some curbs on his executive powers.
The next 30 days will begin to test Maliki's commitment to those promises, one of the biggest of which was to form a new strategic council headed by Allawi. Allawi had strong support from Sunnis, who fear being marginalized by a Shiite-led regime, and from U.S. officials, who saw him as a counterweight to Maliki.
The United States, which still has about 49,000 troops in Iraq advising and training the Iraqi military, is supposed to withdraw its forces completely by the end of 2011. In recent months, insurgent groups such as al-Qaida in Iraq have made a comeback, targeting opponents and exerting control of some Sunni areas of Baghdad where Iraqi's Shiite-dominated security forces are loath to patrol.
U.S. officials had strongly backed creating the strategic council, but it has no clear mandate and many Iraqi officials doubt that Maliki will grant it — or his opponents — real powers.