Iraq set for new government
BAGHDAD (AP) - Iraqi lawmakers approved an agreement on Saturday that aims to bring all of Iraq's feuding political blocs into a new government led by Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, although deep disagreements remain about the role to be played by the country's minority Sunnis.
The deal struck this week ended an eight-month impasse that had stalled the formation of a new government and threatened to re-ignite sectarian violence. But the agreement appeared on the brink of collapse almost immediately after it was announced because of the deep-rooted distrust that pervades Iraq's sectarian politics.
The Sunni-backed Iraqiya bloc had threatened to boycott the Saturday session to approve the deal after storming out of parliament on Thursday and raising fears the group would abstain from government altogether.
Iraqiya lawmakers said they had been betrayed by al-Maliki's Shiite coalition, who they fear is trying to deprive them of a significant role in the next government.
Leaders of the major parties met early Saturday to try to iron out their differences and salvage the deal. When parliament convened later in the day, Iraqiya was present and took part in the parliament vote to approve the power-sharing agreement.
"There was a misunderstanding in the last session," Iraqiya spokesman Haider al-Mulla told lawmakers. "We here stress that we will be an active part in producing a national unity government."
There was no immediate tally of how many members attended or voted for the deal, which was described as a general outline for the new government but with few specifics. Kurdish lawmaker Mahmoud Othman said it passed by a large margin.
Under the agreement, al-Maliki and President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, keep their current posts. Iraqiya, meanwhile, gets the parliament speaker's post as well as the top spot on a council intended to serve as a check on al-Maliki's powers. That job is supposed to go to Iraqiya leader Ayad Allawi.
But in comments to CNN television late Friday, Allawi said he would not take part in the al-Maliki government and described the power-sharing deal as dead. Allawi did not attend the parliament session, and other lawmakers said he had already left the country.
While Allawi absent, Iraqiya official Fattah al-Sheik said the majority of the bloc's members were there.
The lawmakers also agreed Saturday to lift a ban on three Iraqiya members who were prevented from taking seats in parliament because of alleged ties to Saddam Hussein's regime, said Hadi al-Ammari, a Shiite lawmaker aligned with al-Maliki. The issue of whether or not to lift the ban was the reason the Iraqiya lawmakers stormed out of parliament Thursday.
A day after President Barack Obama praised the power-sharing deal, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad voiced his support for it, calling the agreement "a great victory for the Iraqi people."
Iran's official IRNA news agency said Ahmadinejad spoke with al-Maliki and Talabani by telephone Saturday to congratulate them.
Iran, also a Shiite majority country, has backed al-Maliki's efforts to seek another term as a way to consolidate Shiite power in Baghdad. Iran had also lobbied heavily to sideline Sunnis in the new government.
The months of political jockeying after inconclusive March 7 parliamentary elections have left Iraqis disillusioned and fearful that sidelining the minority Sunni community could fuel more violence. Iraqiya won 91 seats to 89 for al-Maliki's State of Law coalition, but neither was near the 163-seat threshold necessary to govern.
Iraqiya argued it should form the government, but after months of negotiations it was al-Maliki who cobbled together enough support to keep the prime minister's post. After intense negotiations and amid signs that al-Maliki would form the government with or without them, Iraqiya decided to join forces with him.
The key test going forward for the Sunnis will be to see how many ministerial posts Iraqiya receives in the new al-Maliki government. Iraqiya lawmaker Wahda al-Joumaili said al-Maliki's alliance must adhere to what she said were previous agreements allocating Iraqiya some influential ministries.
American officials have stressed the risk of a return to sectarian violence if Sunnis do not have a legitimate role in the new government and lobbied hard for Iraqiya to be a part of it.
"If the people don't consider it to be an inclusive government there may be elements in the community who would want to express their displeasure in the form of violence," said the top American commander in Iraq, Gen. Lloyd Austin, speaking to reporters Saturday.
"It's hard to predict how this is going to come out. The best case for security is an inclusive government, and we're just hopeful that we'll see that," he said.