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Iraq's main Sunni bloc to participate in government

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By Liz Sly and Aaron C. Davis
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, December 18, 2010; 5:35 PM

BAGHDAD - Iraq's main Sunni bloc said Saturday that it will definitely participate in the next Iraqi government, after parliament implemented one of its key conditions and cleared the way for Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to announce at least a partial cabinet in the coming week.

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With this coming Saturday's deadline for the formation of the government looming, parliament voted to lift a ban on political activity by three Sunni politicians, fulfilling one of the demands the Iraqiya bloc had set last month for joining a national unity government headed by Maliki, who is poised to begin his second term in office.

The ban, imposed ahead of parliamentary elections in March under the country's post-invasion de-Baathification rules, set the tone for a rancorous and divisive vote that evolved into an equally polarizing eight-month deadlock over who should be named prime minister.

Among those barred from competing in the elections because of their alleged ties to former president Saddam Hussein's Baath Party was the controversial Sunni leader Saleh al-Mutlak, a fierce Maliki critic who is considered a possible candidate for a post in the new cabinet.

Not enough time remains, however, to meet another Iraqiya condition for participation: the creation of a new national council to oversee strategic policy. The factions are still arguing over the powers and mechanisms of the body, which is expected to be headed by Iraqiya leader Ayad Allawi.

A question mark hangs over whether Allawi will take the job if it does not give him sufficient powers. Members of Maliki's Dawa Party insist they are determined to ensure that the new council's role does not interfere with the prime minister's authorities.

But Iraqiya leaders said they accepted Saturday's vote on the de-Baathification issue as evidence of Maliki's sincerity, adding that they would join the government in the expectation that the council would be formed later.

"There is a gentleman's agreement," said Iraqiya lawmaker Nada Ibrahim. "Everybody has learned from the past that if you don't sit around the table shaking hands, there will be no government, and there will be a dead, dark future for the country."

With a deal on a new government in sight, much of the bitterness that has clouded the nine months since the inconclusive elections has lifted.

But there was evidence of the lingering animosities between Iraq's majority Shiites and minority Sunnis when the vote to reverse the ban on the Sunni politicians was taken. Most of the Shiite lawmakers retreated to the cafeteria, leaving the chamber to Sunni and Kurdish deputies, who passed the measure 109 to 61.

It may be a while before Iraqis have a fully functioning new government. Many junior positions have been divvied up among the Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish blocs, but disagreements persist over key jobs such as the ministers of defense and interior.

So Maliki aims to meet Saturday's constitutionally mandated deadline by announcing an incomplete cabinet, perhaps as soon as Monday, leaving the most sensitive positions to be decided at an indefinite date, said lawmaker Ali al-Adeeb, a close aide to the prime minister.

slyl@washpost.com davisa@washpost.com

Special correspondent Aziz Alwan contributed to this report.

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