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Iraq struggles to form government as country faces a series of challenges

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And now a check-in on life and politics in Iraq. It's been four months since the country's parliamentary elections, and party leaders are still negotiating over who should get the top positions. Meanwhile, there are other pressing issues to attend to, like electricity shortages, ISIS attacks and corruption. For an update, we're joined from Baghdad by NPR's Jason Beaubien. Jason, welcome. Thanks for joining us.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: Oh, thanks for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: So let's just start with how things are in Baghdad right now. You've been out talking to people. What are they telling you?

BEAUBIEN: Yeah. I mean, security still remains a major problem in Iraq. Overall, you know, every day you are getting attacks and targeted killings somewhere in the country. But the situation is improving in the capital. You know, there's fewer bombings. You're seeing families out walking. People are eating outside. But there's still a lot of frustration, and it's not just over security, but about unemployment, rising food prices, crumbling infrastructure. And one complaint that I'm hearing constantly is about the lack of electricity. I was talking with Mustafa Ahmed, who's 29. He was having lunch with his fiancee in downtown Baghdad. And he says he only has electricity about four hours a day.

MUSTAFA AHMED: And we are oil country. This is the main problem. We are oil country, but we don't have electricity.

BEAUBIEN: Mustafa Ahmed and other Iraqis - they end up spending a lot of money on fuel for their own private generators. And this was one of the issues that led to widespread protests that brought down the government last year.

MARTIN: You know, it's been four months since the elections, but there's still no agreement on a prime minister or a cabinet. Would you explain what's going on?

BEAUBIEN: This is still a young political system. Even today, the supreme court disqualified the leading candidate for the presidency, and that's just for a mainly ceremonial role. Iraq's parliament is divided. That no party got a majority in that last round of elections. The main winner, however, was the populous Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. His party got the largest bloc of votes of anyone. Many people might remember Sadr's militia. It was known for fighting fiercely against U.S. troops. But he's moderated to some degree now, and he's seen as sort of the counterbalance to a lot of the political forces here that are aligned with Iran. And he really looks like the kingmaker at the moment, but he's been driving a hard bargain over sharing power, over how to form a new government.

MARTIN: So this wouldn't be the first time that Iraq's parliament has haggled for months over forming a government. How are things different now?

BEAUBIEN: It's different for a couple of reasons. First, in response to those protests that we mentioned, they opened up the political system, which brought in some new parties. You know, and overall, that's good. Also, the country is relatively stable. It's no longer battling ISIS for control of the entire north of the country. I was talking with Farhad Alaaldin. He's a longtime political analyst here in Baghdad. And he says the danger right now is that you have this political stalemate that can inflame tensions in a country that's still got lots of heavily armed factions out there.

FARHAD ALAALDIN: Currently, the country faces very tough challenges. These could very well implode in one way or another, and that could lead to chaos.

BEAUBIEN: But they have pulled it together in the past. You know, and if they do, there is one thing going for Iraq right now, and it gets almost all of its money from oil. And right now, oil prices are up dramatically. So if and when a government does get formed, there could be cash to tackle some of these big problems that are facing the country.

MARTIN: That is NPR's Jason Beaubien in Baghdad. Jason, thank you.

BEAUBIEN: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jason Beaubien is NPR's Global Health and Development Correspondent on the Science Desk.