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Sunni bloc to return to Iraqi Cabinet

Times Staff Writer

Iraq’s main Sunni Arab political bloc announced Thursday that it was ready to rejoin the Cabinet, a step that could boost reconciliation efforts and help shore up Prime Minister Nouri Maliki’s government.

The departure of the Iraqi Accordance Front in August left Maliki with a unity government in name only. Most of the Cabinet posts are held by Shiite Muslims and their ethnic Kurdish allies, and members of the disaffected Sunni minority continue to drive some of the worst insurgent violence.

Maliki’s office said Thursday that all political factions were now willing to participate in the government.

“National reconciliation is a success,” it said in a statement issued after Maliki met with visiting British Foreign Secretary David Miliband. “The support from all political factions for the government’s current activities shows that it is representative of all.”

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However, Maliki’s main rivals among his fellow Shiites, followers of radical cleric Muqtada Sadr, said they had no intention of rejoining the Cabinet. They too walked out last year, along with a handful of other politicians.

Members of Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia have been clashing daily with U.S. and Iraqi security forces since the government launched a crackdown late last month. The fighting has been a blow to security gains made in part when Sadr declared a unilateral cease-fire in August.

At least seven people were killed and 28 injured in clashes in the Mahdi Army’s Baghdad stronghold of Sadr City in the 24 hours ending Thursday evening, police said.

Analysts cautioned that the Sunni bloc’s decision to rejoin the Cabinet was unlikely to curb the violence, which has been increasing.

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“The group’s return marks an effort to stitch together again a national unity government that was from the outset divided, ill-constituted to govern and hardly representative of the nation,” said Joost Hiltermann, Middle East director for the International Crisis Group. “For real reconciliation, we will have to wait for this government to reach out to its enemies, not to friends who stepped out in a huff.”

The Accordance Front ordered its six Cabinet members to leave last year, accusing Maliki and other Shiite politicians of refusing to share power with the Sunni minority, who were favored under Saddam Hussein. But one member, the Sunni planning minister, remained on the job against the instructions and is no longer considered part of the bloc.

Negotiations have been on for months to persuade the other Sunni leaders to return.

“The prime minister has shown that he is willing to achieve this partnership,” said Iyad Samarrai, secretary-general of the bloc’s largest party.

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He said Maliki had accepted a formula to govern in consultation with the president and two vice presidents, one of whom is a member of the Accordance Front. Samarrai also cited as progress the passage of a law providing conditional amnesty to what could amount to thousands of detainees, most of them Sunnis, as well as Maliki’s recent crackdown against Shiite militiamen.

Rashid Azzawi, an Accordance Front lawmaker, said the Sunni alliance expected to submit its nominees for the five Cabinet slots it once held plus at least one other post. But Maliki’s office did not say when he would present a new government for parliamentary approval.

Maliki has said he reserves the right to redistribute posts among the political blocs and to introduce skilled “technocrats” who are not necessarily affiliated with a party. Sunni tribal leaders, who have helped U.S. and Iraqi forces drive out insurgents from areas they once controlled, also are pressing for government representation.

In its statement, Maliki’s office reiterated a demand that all political sides disarm, suggesting that the prime minister remains far from reaching a settlement with Sadr.

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The cleric says that the truce he ordered remains in effect despite the current clashes. But he has resisted demands that his fighters turn in their weapons and has threatened open war if government raids continue.

Leaflets circulating Thursday in the cleric’s Baghdad strongholds demanded that members of the Shiite-dominated police and military walk off their jobs today to protest the government’s “oppression and tyranny.”

In other developments, the U.S. military announced the deaths Wednesday of two soldiers when a vehicle rolled over en route to a combat outpost north of Baghdad. A third soldier and an interpreter were injured in the incident, the military said in a statement.

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alexandra.zavis@latimes.com

Times staff writers Caesar Ahmed and Saif Hameed in Baghdad, special correspondent Saad Fakhrildeen in Najaf and special correspondents in Baghdad contributed to this report.


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