Iraq Sunni bloc close to rejoining government

1/07/2008 - 15:51

By Mohammed Abbas and Wisam Mohammed

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq's main Sunni Arab bloc is close torejoining the Shi'ite-led government, officials said onTuesday, a move that would amount to a long-awaited politicalbreakthrough.

Getting the Accordance Front to return to government afterit quit nearly a year ago is widely seen as a key step inreconciling feuding factions after years of sectarian conflict.Sunni Arabs have little voice in the current cabinet, which isdominated by Shi'ites and ethnic Kurds.

Asked if the Front was set to rejoin, spokesman Salimal-Jubouri said: "Yes. Many of our demands have been executed... sharing of responsibility, the issuance of the amnestylaw."

An amnesty law passed in February has freed many prisonersfrom the minority Sunni Arab community. Sunni Arabs form thebulk of inmates after security forces detained thousands insecurity sweeps at the height of a Sunni Arab insurgency.

Jubouri said the Front had put forward names for cabinetposts to Shi'ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.

Government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said Maliki wouldsubmit the names and their proposed ministries before aparliamentary vote, although he did not say when.

"There has been agreement with the Accordance Front thattheir share will be six ministerial posts, except the post ofthe Planning Ministry, which will be decided later," he said.

The Front pulled out of Maliki's cabinet last August,demanding the release of mainly Sunni Arab detainees andcalling for a greater say in security matters.

On several occasions in the past it has appeared ready torejoin the government, only for obstacles to suddenly emerge.

But Maliki's recent crackdowns against Shi'ite militias inIraq's oil producing south, as well as the Shi'ite Baghdad slumof Sadr City, has also been welcomed by the Front and was onereason it had decided to rejoin the government, Jubouri said.

Sunni Arab politicians have long been critical of Maliki'searlier reluctance to confront Shi'ite militias, including theMehdi Army of anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. Thepolitical wing of Sadr's movement helped Maliki into power.

The Front wanted the ministries of planning, culture,foreign affairs, higher education, women, and a post of deputyprime minister, as well as either the justice or transportministries, Jubouri said. Some of these are vacant.


The apparent political progress coincides with violencelevels hovering at four-year lows in Iraq.

That has allowed the U.S. military to keep withdrawingadditional forces President George W. Bush deployed last year.

A U.S. military spokesman said the last of the fiveadditional combat brigades that were sent to the country in2007 had begun to leave.

"Elements of the fifth surge brigade have already begunredeploying, so, by the end of July, we will be at 15 combatbrigade teams in Iraq," the military spokesman said.

The U.S. military had 20 combat brigades in Iraq at itspeak in 2007, with troop levels around 160,000-170,000. Numberswill fall to some 140,000 once the final "surge" brigadeleaves.

U.S. troop deaths in Iraq rose to 29 in June from 19 inMay, according to the independent website icasualties.org,which tracks American casualty figures.

The May number was the lowest since the U.S.-led invasionin 2003. In June last year, 101 U.S. troops were killed.

The number of civilians killed in June fell despite a fewbig bombings, government figures showed on Tuesday.

Numbers from the Iraqi Health Ministry showed 448 civilianswere killed in June, from 505 in May. The May figure was downfrom 968 civilian deaths in April, a month when fightingspiralled between Shi'ite militias and security forces.

The five-year-old war in Iraq has claimed the lives of morethan 4,000 American soldiers and tens of thousands of Iraqis.

Despite the improved security, U.S. generals have stressedthe gains are both fragile and reversible.

That was shown in March and April, when governmentoffensives against Shi'ite militias sparked a surge in violencein the capital Baghdad and other cities.

U.S. officials credit the turnaround in security to Bush'sdecision to send extra troops, a rebellion by Sunni triballeaders against al Qaeda, and a ceasefire by anti-AmericanShi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.

(Writing by Dean Yates, Editing by Ibon Villelabeitia)

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