By Leila Fadel and Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, November 11, 2010; 3:29 PM
BAGHDAD - The largely Sunni-backed Iraqiya bloc walked out of a critical parliamentary session Thursday to protest what they said was a broken promise by other political blocs.
The walkout dealt a setback to what was expected to be a turning point in the impasse that has paralyzed Iraqi politics since inconclusive elections in March. After the departure of Iraqiya, which won the most seats in Iraq's parliament by a slim margin, the remaining 232 lawmakers continued to a presidential vote without them - a move that observers feared could cause a national crisis. Thursday's session had been expected to go smoothly after all major blocs agreed late Wednesday to participate based upon mutual understandings.
After the speaker of the parliament, Osama Nujaifi of Iraqiya, was elected along with two deputies, members of Iraqiya asked that details of the blocs' agreement be discussed in the session, specifically, a promise to lift a ban keeping four Iraqiya members from participating in the government. The men had been banned under the controversial Justice and Accountability law that bars members of Saddam Hussein's outlawed Baath party from government and security ranks - a law many believed was used to politically cripple Iraqiya before the election. After lawmakers voted not to discuss the issue before the vote for the presidency, all of Iraqiya's representatives except the new speaker streamed out.
"We will not participate in the political process, we will not join," said Jaber al-Jaberi, a top Iraqiya official. "This is a sign of many broken promises to come."
Nujaifi, the new speaker, later walked out, as well, saying there was no "trust," but he subsequently returned and voted for the president.The lawmakers elected Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani, who was immediately sworn in.
"This is not a crisis," said Sami al-Askari, a member of incumbent Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's political bloc. "We're continuing because we have a quorum."
The walkout occurred in the midst of a White House briefing called to tout the agreement as a victory and as "a big step for Iraq."
"This is a government that is made in Iraq," said one of two senior administration officials who spoke to reporters on the condition of anonymity. "It is not the result of influence or work of any outside actor, any outside country."
Iraqis "negotiated very difficult issues themselves, and they came to an agreement," he said.
The officials credited Massoud Barzani, the president of the semi-autonomous Kurdish region, with organizing the negotiations that led to the breakthrough. They acknowledged high-level calls from Washington, including calls from President Obama over the past week in which he appealed to the Kurds to relinquish the presidency to Iraqiya.
"We tried to be as helpful as we could," one official said, adding, "We've had conversations, many of us, exploring all options, and this was one of them."
In the interim, he said, the Iraqis came up with the agreement announced Wednesday.
Asked about disappointment expressed by some Iraqiya members over Maliki's retention as prime minister, and concerns that some Sunnis would leave the bloc and resume violence, one of the officials said that Iraqiya was "all in" with respect to the new government and that "in the weeks ahead, the positions they will hold in government . . . will vindicate their decision to participate."
After the briefing, when word of the walkout reached the White House, an official urged patience, saying "let's wait and see what happens."
The key to the agreement spearheaded by Barzani was getting the largely Sunni-backed Iraqiya bloc, which is headed by secular Shiite Ayad Allawi, to support Maliki, a Shiite, as prime minister.
In exchange, Iraqiya, which won the most votes in the March elections, would control the speakership of parliament and would head up a still-to-be-formed strategic council.
"We reached a big accomplishment last night, and we consider it a victory for all Iraqis," Barzani said in a news conference.
But even as the deal was announced, officials in the group were expressing disappointment at what some described as a marginalized role - a potentially troubling sign for the United States as it moves toward the planned withdrawal of all of its forces by the end of 2011.
Under the new agreement, parliament was expected to appoint a speaker from the Iraqiya bloc, and then name the current president of Iraq - Jalal Talabani, a Kurd - to serve another term as president. Talibani, in turn, would name Maliki to continue as prime minister. Maliki would then have to put together a cabinet that a simple parliamentary majority must approve.
U.S. officials have been pushing a power-sharing agreement between Allawi and Maliki, whom they tacitly backed for prime minister over the summer. Officials saw it as a way to break Maliki's monopoly on government authority and give Iraq's Sunni Arab minority a powerful role in Iraq's next government.
In Washington, administration officials said that the deal met many of their goals and were optimistic about its chances of giving all the country's major factions a say in the new government.
"This is a significant achievement, the result the Iraqi people voted for and a truly inclusive government" with "significant distribution of powers across the government," said Antony J. Blinken, national security adviser to Vice President Biden. Biden spoke with Maliki and Allawi on Wednesday.
Blinken said that, as a result of negotiations completed this week, Iraqiya and the Kurdish bloc had formed a "loose alliance" to ensure that Maliki did not renege on agreements allotting significant government positions to Iraqiya, including the parliamentary speakership and the chair of a proposed strategic council with authority to approve major government decisions.
"Both have the same interest in power-sharing," Blinken said of the Kurds and Iraqiya. "Together, they have the potential to pull down the government."
But some Iraqiya officials expressed disappointment in the deal and said that Maliki had made no real concessions.
Instead, the agreement seemed to some to be more in line with what Iran has been advocating - an Iraqi government dominated by Shiite religious parties.
"This is not the scenario the U.S. favored," said Joost Hiltermann, an Iraq expert from the International Crisis Group. "This is mostly in favor of Iran. We'll have to see what happens."
Blinken disagreed, saying that Iraqiya would be "a major player and full partner" and that the agreement was "a real setback for Iran."
Throughout the often-torturous negotiations, U.S. officials have repeatedly reported a deal was near, only to see it fall apart.
"We'll see tomorrow whether these deals will be honored," one Iraqi official said. It would be important, as parliament convenes Thursday, he said, to "get it in writing" and "hold everybody publicly to their word."
Another official expressed surprise over the reported deal between Iraqiya and the Kurds, saying that until recently, at least, the Kurds had been disappointed in their negotiations with Iraqiya.
Iraqiya will meet one more time before Thursday's parliament session, but the bloc is unlikely to change its mind on the deal, Iraqiya officials said.
A senior administration official pointed to a yet-to-be-formed National Council for Strategic Policies, with responsibility for economic, security and diplomatic matters; it is to be headed by a senior Iraqiya official and could in theory wield significant influence. But the council is still theoretical and its powers have not been delineated. What is clear is that Iraqiya has been shut out of the top government job, prime minister, and the presidency, which bloc leaders had hoped to control, with expanded powers.
Allawi's negotiating team agreed to support Maliki's bid for the top job in the face of threats from some members of the bloc that they would leave Iraqiya and back Maliki, weakening Allawi's position.
"There was too much pressure from our own political groups. Unfortunately a deal was made, and now we have to concentrate on the ministries," said a leading member of parliament from the Iraqiya bloc.
The new government would be in place as the United States faces a deadline to withdraw all of its forces by the end of next year. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said this week that the United States was open to keeping troops in Iraq if the Iraqi government asks.
Maliki took office as prime minister in 2006 and led Iraq during its darkest days of the civil war. He was seen as a weak leader until he ordered an offensive against Shiite militants in the south and the capital that surprised U.S. officials and his Iraqi counterparts. He alienated his Shiite allies and won friends among Sunni Arabs who had suspected he was a sectarian figure.
But he became a divisive leader. He consulted a close circle of advisers and circumvented security ministries with forces loyal to him, his detractors say. Many worry that if he assumes power again with no check on authority he could grow into an authoritarian leader.
The government formation process has dragged on as violence continues. Last week more than 118 people were killed in attacks, including a brutal church takeover that left 58 Christians dead inside their place of prayer.
Christians were attacked by mortar fire and roadside bombs across the capital Tuesday and Wednesday. At least four people were killed and dozens were injured, deepening fears that the Christian minority is not safe in Iraq.
DeYoung reported from Washington. Special correspondent Ali al Qeisy contributed to this report.