Sunnis rejoin Iraqi government, raising reconciliation hopes

BAGHDAD — In a shift toward political reconciliation and away from sectarianism, Iraq's largest Sunni bloc ended a nearly yearlong boycott Saturday and rejoined the cabinet, retaking six ministry spots.

Until now, some Iraqis questioned how well Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki's Shiite-led government represented the nation's Sunnis, who were part of the ruling class under Saddam Hussein. Only two of the 38 ministries were given to Sunnis even though they make up 20 percent of Iraq's population. Many hope that new posts will symbolize that the government is committed to much-needed reconciliation.

Reconciliation could lead the Iraqi government to find the economic and political means to maintain the recent security gains. While Iraqis nationwide celebrate the improvements, they believe their government is too divided to compromise across sectarian lines.

The largest Sunni bloc, the Iraqi National Accord, said they rejoined the government because the schism between the party and Maliki had diminished and that many of their demands had been met.

"The Maliki government is working on the positive side, but we still have some unresolved issues. We still have sectarianism in the government. So we want to make sure there is a balance," said Dhafar al Ani, a parliamentarian and a member of the bloc. The Iraqi security forces, he added, "still randomly detain people. And they still have secret interrogations. And there are issues with the amnesty program."

The bloc suspended their membership from parliament and withdrew from Maliki's government last August because they said the Iraqi security forces was sectarian, Sunni Arabs were being unjustly thrown into jail and Maliki was ignoring the needs of the Sunnis in favor of his fellow Shiites. The parliament members returned a month later, but not the ministers from the bloc.

There had been several efforts in the past months to fill the posts but the warring political factions could not agree on the names. Before, the parliament would erupt into shouting matches over who should fill the vacancies. And as recently as last week, there were disagreements within the bloc itself. But on Saturday, the members were conciliatory as the candidates gave a brief speech introducing themselves to the parliament before the legislators voted by raising their hands.

The parliament named Rafeh al Issawi the new deputy prime minister. The other posts included the ministries of higher education, state for foreign affairs, culture, communications and state for women's issues.

The Sunni decision to rejoin Maliki's government and the Shiite's willingness to accept them was driven by this fall's scheduled provincial elections. The Sunni bloc expects to lose power to their provincial rivals, so it wants to retain as much power at the national level. And the Shiite politicians want to claim they are successfully reconciling with their one-time Sunni opponents.

Sunni members have said Maliki's decision to launch an offensive last spring against Shiite militiamen in the southern port city of Basra was a key pivot point for them, saying that decision convinced them that Maliki could put aside loyalties to attack rogue Shiite groups.

The parliament also agreed to fill four other ministry posts that members of firebrand cleric's Muqtada al Sadr's party left last year with technocrats. They include the ministers of transportation, tourism, state for provincial affairs and state for civil society.

Also Saturday, British Prime Minster Gordon Brown made an unexpected visit to Iraq, saying he would not adopt an "artificial timetable" for the withdrawal of the remaining 4,000 British troops.

Brown is expected to make a presentation to British lawmakers next week about how he plans to drawdown troops there. And while the U.S. announced Friday that it had agreed with the Iraqi government on a "time horizon" for the withdrawal of U.S. forces, Brown said after his meeting with Maliki that he had no plans to make such assurances.

"It is certainly our intention that we reduce troop numbers, but I am not going to give an artificial timetable at the moment," Brown told reporters in Baghdad during his third visit here since becoming prime minister.

McClatchy Newspapers special correspondent Hussein Kadhim contributed to this report.