Sunni bloc says it will rejoin Iraq Cabinet

The Baltimore Sun

BAGHDAD -- The main Sunni Arab political bloc announced yesterday that it was ready to rejoin the Shiite-led Cabinet, a step that could boost reconciliation efforts and help shore up Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's faltering government.

Rashid Azzawi, a parliamentary representative for the Iraqi Accordance Front, said the Sunni alliance expects to submit its nominees for the Cabinet within days.

The bloc ordered six members to leave the Cabinet last year, accusing al-Maliki and other Shiite politicians of ignoring Sunni interests, a reflection of the feeling among Iraq's Sunni minority that it is being sidelined by the majority Shiites and the Kurds, who dominate parliament and al-Maliki's government.

One member, the Sunni planning minister, remained on the job and is no longer considered part of the bloc.

Negotiations to persuade the other Sunni politicians to return to the government have gone on for months.

Azzawi said the bloc had waited to see evidence that its demands were being met. He cited as progress the passage of a law that could provide conditional amnesty to thousands of detainees, many of whom are Sunnis, as well as a crackdown on Shiite militiamen.

Al-Maliki's office described the decision as a success for national reconciliation.

"The support from all political factions for the government's current activities shows that it is representative of all," it said in a statement issued after al-Maliki met yesterday with visiting British Foreign Secretary David Miliband.

However, it did not appear that he was including followers of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, many of whom have been battling U.S. and Iraqi forces in Baghdad and the southern port city of Basra since the start of an Iraqi government crackdown late last month. Al-Sadr's followers also walked out of the Cabinet last year.

In an apparent reference to the cleric's movement, the statement quoted al-Maliki as telling Miliband that "political activity should not go hand in hand with armed activity, that all should work as politicians."

Al-Sadr ordered his Mahdi Army militia to stand down in August, a truce he says remains in effect despite the clashes. Still, he has resisted government demands that his fighters disarm.

Al-Sadr's representatives said yesterday that they had no intention of returning to the government.

Azzawi said his bloc would be submitting names for the five posts it abandoned along with at least one other that it would be seeking.

Al-Maliki has said that he reserves the right to redistribute posts among the main political blocs and to introduce skilled technocrats who are not necessarily affiliated with a political party. Sunni tribal leaders, who have helped U.S. and Iraqi forces drive insurgents out of many areas, are also pressing for government representation.

In other developments, the U.S. military said two soldiers were killed Wednesday when a vehicle rolled onto its side while driving to a combat outpost north of Baghdad. Another soldier and an interpreter were injured in the incident, the military said.

Alexandra Zavis writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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