Sunni Bloc Rejoins Iraqi Government, Amid Reconciliation Hopes

By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, July 20, 2008

BAGHDAD, July 19 -- Iraq's largest Sunni political bloc rejoined the government Saturday after a nearly year-long boycott, a move that could help bridge the country's sectarian divide.

The return of the Iraqi Accordance Front is widely seen as a victory for Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his efforts to portray himself as a nationalist leader uninfluenced by sectarian pressures.

"It means the success of the political process and the success of the security situation and of reconciliation," said Adnan al-Dulaimi, leader of the bloc.

The move came as British Prime Minister Gordon Brown made an unannounced visit to Baghdad for talks with Maliki and President Jalal Talabani. Brown declared afterward that Britain will reduce troop levels in Iraq but refused to set what he called an "artificial" timetable.

Brown's language echoed that of the Bush administration, which announced Friday that the United States and Iraq had agreed on a general "time horizon" for U.S. troop withdrawals. Brown appeared to suggest that any troop cuts would depend on conditions on the ground.

"The tests for us will be: How are we meeting the objectives that we've set? What progress can we show?" Brown told reporters at a news conference.

Britain has 4,000 soldiers in Iraq, down from 45,000 at the time of the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. Most are based at an airport near the southern port city of Basra, where their primary role is to train Iraqi soldiers.

The United States has long viewed the inclusion of Sunnis in the political process as vital to national reconciliation. Under the agreement, Sunnis from the Accordance Front will lead five ministries: Culture, Women's Affairs, Higher Education, Communications and the State Ministry for Foreign Affairs. A Sunni, Rafie Jiyad al-Esawi, will become a deputy prime minister.

Iraq's parliament also appointed four members of the ruling Shiite alliance to ministerial posts vacated by loyalists of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who pulled out of the coalition government last year.

Many Sunnis welcomed the re-inclusion of the Sunnis in the political process, saying they hope it will boost security.

"In five years, Iraq bled huge amounts of blood, and now the bleeding should stop," said Mutashar al-Samarrae, a tribal leader in Samarra, a city north of Baghdad. "The game is over, and development has to start."

Accordance Front leaders said they rejoined the government partly because they viewed Maliki's decision to crack down on Shiite militias in Basra in March as a sign that he was not sectarian. The government also recently passed an amnesty law that has led to the release of thousands of Sunni detainees, one of the bloc's core demands.

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