BAGHDAD (Reuters) - The Iraqi parliament on Saturday approved a Sunni Muslim to become defense minister and a Shi‘ite to be interior minister, state television said, as part of a more inclusive government to help tackle Islamist insurgents.
Six Kurdish members of the cabinet were also sworn in after the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) had held out for a larger share of ministries than the three offered when Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi unveiled his government on Sept.8.
The moves provide a stronger political foundation for Abadi to try to counter Islamic State’s grip on most Sunni areas of the country to the north and west.
They also help to repair relations with the country’s Kurds strained by quarrels over budget allocations and disputes over oil rights and land in the north.
For the defense portfolio, parliament voted in favor of Khaled al-Obeidi, a Sunni from the northern city of Mosul that is now under Islamic State control. Mohammed al-Ghabban of the powerful Shi‘ite political party, the Badr Organization, which has a militia wing, is to take over the interior ministry.
Obeidi belongs to the party of Vice President Usama al-Nujaifi and is a confidant of his brother Atheel al-Nujaifi, the governor of Nineveh province that was overrun by Sunni Islamic State forces. Ghabban was seen as a compromise for interior minister after Badr chief Hadi al-Amri drew the objections of Sunni parties.
The Kurds, who originally had been offered the ministry of finance, a post of deputy prime minister and minister of culture, were also given the posts of a minister without portfolio, minister of women’s affairs and the ministry of displacement and migration.
“The new government will be inclusive and address core issues of reconciliation, establishing security and stability in the country... and resolving the outstanding KRG issues of oil and the disputed territories,” new Finance Minister Hoshiyar Zebari, a Kurd, told Reuters.
The United States, which has sent US military advisers to Iraq and has conducted air strikes against Islamic State, applauded the announcement.
“We had a very positive step forward in Iraq today with the selection of the minister of interior and the minister of defense,” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters in Boston, where was meeting China’s most senior diplomat, State Councillor Yang Jiechi for talks on Islamic State and other issues.
“These were critical positions to be filled in order to assist with the organizing effort with respect to ISIL (Islamic State).”
Obeidi, a general in Iraq’s army before 2003, was in Mosul in the final hours before the city fell to Islamic State in June. He said his own house in Mosul had been occupied by Islamic State militants. His appointment has symbolic value for the Iraqi government, as it looks to persuade Mosul residents to rise up.
Obeidi has been deeply critical of the military under Abadi’s predecessor Nuri al-Maliki and has called for major reforms in the security institution.
The naming of the security ministers had largely been slowed by the internal debate among the Shi‘ites on whether they could name Amri, who is close to both Maliki and Iran, as interior minister.
The Badr Organization’s armed wing is blamed by Sunnis for carrying out sectarian killings in the early years after Saddam Hussein fell in 2003. Badr members deny the allegations. The choice of Ghabban was seen as less controversial than Amri.
Reporting By Ned Parker and Ahmed al-Rasheed, David Brunnstrom; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Stephen Powell