Sunni Bloc to Rejoin Government
Boycott Would End With Assignment of Iraqi Cabinet Posts

By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, July 2, 2008

BAGHDAD, July 1 -- Iraq's main Sunni Muslim political bloc is on the verge of rejoining the Shiite-led government after a nearly year-long boycott, a step widely seen as vital to reconciliation after years of sectarian conflict.

Sunni leaders said Tuesday they had submitted the names of candidates to fill at least five cabinet posts as well as the position of deputy prime minister to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said Maliki plans to put the six names to a parliamentary vote as early as next week.

"As soon as they are approved, there's nothing stopping them from rejoining the government," Dabbagh said.

The bloc, known as the Tawafaq Front, withdrew from the government last August over demands for constitutional changes and the release of Sunni detainees from Iraq's prisons.

Sunni leaders now say the government has done enough to address their core conditions, including passing an amnesty law that has freed thousands of Sunni detainees this year. The leaders said they were also encouraged by the government's efforts in tackling Shiite militias, especially the Mahdi Army of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.

"We feel that a great deal of them have been fulfilled," said Salim Abdullah al-Jubori, a spokesmen for the Sunni bloc, referring to the conditions.

If the Sunni bloc returns, it will mark a political victory for Maliki as well achieve a key U.S. policy goal. Sunnis would have a greater voice in a cabinet currently dominated by Shiites and Kurds.

But previous deals to bring the bloc back into the government have crumbled because of dissension over which Sunnis should lead which ministries. Sunni leaders said they are seeking control over the ministries of culture, higher education, planning, and women's affairs, as well as the state ministry for foreign affairs. Jubori said the Sunni bloc had also nominated candidates to lead the justice and communications ministries.

The most controversial portfolio had been planning, which is also the most influential of the ministries in question. It is led by Ali Baban, who abandoned the Sunni bloc in order to remain in his post. On Tuesday, Jubori said that Maliki had assured Sunni leaders that the ministry would revert to the bloc's control.

But Dabbagh said the planning ministry had been taken off the table with the agreement of the Sunni bloc, an indication of discord that could jeopardize the negotiations. Dabbagh said the Sunnis would instead be placed in charge of the communications ministry and Kurdish parties would name the next justice minister.

Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari urged Iraqi lawmakers to approve a new security agreement that would permit U.S. troops to remain in Iraq after a United Nations mandate expires this year. Zebari recently met with President Bush in Washington to discuss the pact. Many Iraqis are concerned the pact would allow the United States to infringe on Iraq's sovereignty. Zebari told lawmakers that any agreement would last one or two years.

In Diyala province, a suicide bomber attacked a police checkpoint in Mendily, 45 miles east of the provincial capital, Baqubah, killing three people, police said. In a separate incident in Diyala, a roadside bomb in the town of Buhroz killed three civilians and injured four. Mortar shells also fell on the same area, killing one civilian, police said.

Special correspondents Aziz Alwan and Saad al-Izzi in Baghdad and Washington Post staff in Baqubah contributed to this report.

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