BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraqi lawmakers approved Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi's remaining Cabinet nominees on Saturday, including for the critical defense and interior portfolios, completing the formation of a government that will strive to push the Islamic State extremist group out of the sprawling territory it has seized in recent months.
Control over the two powerful security ministries has long been a source of tension among Iraq's feuding political factions. The U.S. and other allies have been pushing for a more representative government that can reach out to Sunnis, who felt marginalized by former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Sunni discontent is widely seen as having fueled the IS group's dramatic advances in Iraq since June, when it captured the country's second largest city Mosul.
Khaled al-Obeidi, a Sunni lawmaker from Mosul, was selected for the post of defense minister, by a vote of 175-85. He had served as an officer in Saddam Hussein's military and holds a PhD in political science.
Mohammed Salem al-Ghabban, a Shiite lawmaker with al-Abadi's State of Law political bloc, was approved as minister of interior by a 197-63 vote. He holds degrees from universities in both Tehran and London and he is currently pursuing a PhD in political science in Baghdad. He was a long-time opponent of Saddam and was detained in 1979.
Hoshyar Zebari, a Kurdish politician and Iraq's long-serving foreign minister, was named minister of finance, having previously been voted in as deputy prime minister. Shiite lawmaker Adel Fahd al-Shirshab was named tourism minister, and Kurdish lawmaker Bayan Nouri was appointed minister of women's affairs.
Iraq is facing its worst crisis since the 2011 withdrawal of U.S. troops, with the Islamic State group in control of about a third of the country.
Iraq's U.S.-trained and equipped armed forces collapsed in the face of the militants' advance, abandoning heavy weapons that the extremist group is now using in battles across both Iraq and Syria.
Many have blamed the army's poor performance on al-Maliki, saying he replaced top officers with inexperienced or incompetent political allies in order to monopolize power. From 2010 until his resignation in August, al-Maliki had held both the interior and defense portfolios, in part because lawmakers could not agree on nominees for them.
The U.S. began launching airstrikes against the Islamic State group in August and along with Western allies has provided aid to Iraqi forces and Kurds fighting in the north. But Washington has repeatedly called on Baghdad to reach out to the Sunni and Kurdish minorities, saying only a unified Iraqi government can defeat the extremists.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called the completion of the Iraqi government a "very positive step forward."
"These were critical positions to be filled in order to assist with the organizing effort with respect to ISIL," Kerry told reporters in Boston on Saturday.
The State Department praised the move in a statement, saying the ministers "represent the diversity of Iraq, and complete an inclusive Cabinet."
Vice President Joe Biden congratulated al-Abadi "on the selection and approval" of the seven new Cabinet ministers in a telephone call Saturday. Biden's office said the two discussed steps "to rebuild Iraq's security forces and enlist all of Iraq's communities in the fight" against the Islamic State group.
Iraqi lawmakers expressed hope that the new government would help boost morale among troops in the field.
"I think that the security situation will improve after the selection of the two ministers, because now troops know that when they fight, the whole country and all the political blocs are supporting them," said Rsoul Radhi, a Shiite lawmaker from al-Abadi's bloc.
"All security and political efforts should now be directed toward retaking the territories held by Daesh," he added, using an Arabic acronym for the Islamic State group.
Lawmakers approved most of al-Abadi's Cabinet on Sept. 8 and officially voted him in as prime minister, bringing a formal end to al-Maliki's eight-year rule, but al-Abadi requested a delay in naming defense and interior ministers because lawmakers had not agreed on his proposed candidates. Candidates put forward on Sept. 16 were rejected by parliament.
"Security issues should now be the priority for Iraqi officials and politicians who showed today they are aware that political wrangling will lead the country nowhere," said Kurdish lawmaker Perwan Muslih. "All efforts should be directed toward the common enemy."
Later on Saturday, a car bomb exploded near a cafe just south of Baghdad, killing four people and wounding 14 others. Another bomb near a small restaurant in Baghdad's western district of Ghazaliyah killed three people and wounded 16 others.
In the town of Mahmoudiya, some 30 kilometers (20 miles) south of Baghdad, a car bomb exploded on a commercial street, killing four people and wounding 16 others, said police.
Hospital officials confirmed the casualties. All officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.
Associated Press writer Sameer N. Yacoub in Baghdad and Matthew Lee in Boston contributed to this report.