BAGHDAD -- Iraq's Kurdish president and Shiite Muslim prime minister hailed a governing alliance forged yesterday as a major stride toward reuniting the country's ethnically fractured leadership.
But with Sunni Arabs still refusing to take part in the coalition, it remained doubtful that significant progress in Iraq would come soon.
The political maneuvering came as teams in northern Iraq tallied the grim figures from the deadliest wave of suicide attacks of the war and - in a rare moment of joy since Tuesday's devastation - pulled four children alive from the rubble, the Associated Press reported.
Interior Ministry spokesman Brig. Gen. Abdul-Karim Khalaf said yesterday that at least 400 were dead - apparently all members of the ancient Yazidi sect that mixes elements of Islam, Christianity and other faiths. Some authorities outside the central government had said at least 500 people died and have not revised that figure downward.
In Baghdad, a car loaded with explosives detonated early yesterday inside a central parking garage and leather-goods warehouse, killing at least nine Iraqis and injuring 17. Fire engulfed the Al-Rusafi complex, belching smoke and debris into the searing August heat.
The Pentagon reported two U.S. soldiers died in combat, bringing to 3,703 the number of American troops killed since the March 2003 invasion, according to a count by the Associated Press.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki hailed his Shiite bloc's newly proclaimed collaboration with Iraq's Kurdish political parties as a first step toward restoring a functioning government after the defections of nearly half of his 37-member Cabinet.
All Sunni and some Shiite ministers had been boycotting the leadership over conflicting views on tackling sectarian violence.
"This agreement is a first step. It is not the final one, and the door is open for all who agree with us that we should push the political process forward," the prime minister said, adding that "we would welcome the return of the [Sunni bloc] and we will be working to bring them back."
President Jalal Talabani said signing the agreement "will help solve many problems in the present crisis and encourage the others to join us."
The alliance of the Shiite Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council and Dawa parties with the Kurdish Patriotic Union and the Democratic Party of Kurdistan gives the two ethnic factions a 181-seat majority in the 275-member parliament, which is in recess until next month.
But Western diplomats and coalition military leaders pointed out that the absence of the Sunnis was likely to hamper the leadership's effectiveness and ability to restore peace.
Vice President Tariq Hashimi of the Sunni bloc known as Tawafiq refused to take part in the meetings held by Talabani this week leading up to the agreement. The Sunnis' parliamentary leader, Adnan Dulaimi, said the faction repeatedly had been "disappointed" by the government and felt that to negotiate a new power-sharing arrangement would have strengthened al-Maliki.
In a sign of potential reconciliation, though, Hashimi sent a message of congratulation to Talabani on the accord. While the deal essentially reiterates the status quo, it could provide a face-saving opportunity for defectors to return for a fresh effort at national unity.
Sunnis accuse al-Maliki of ignoring the violence unleashed by rogue Shiite militiamen, such as those of the Mahdi Army loyal to radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and blamed for much of the sectarian bloodshed in and around Baghdad.
Al-Sadr's Shiite faction also has been boycotting the government. A delegation met with Talabani shortly after the accord was signed, but it was unclear whether progress was made toward drawing in the cleric's followers.
Having in place a functioning and united national government is a prerequisite to handing over responsibility for security in areas of Iraq that have been stabilized as part of the U.S. troop buildup that began this year, said Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, commander of the task force that is carrying out much of the counterinsurgency mission in Baghdad.
Carol J. Williams writes for the Los Angeles Times.