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World

Iraq's power-sharing deal thrown into doubt after Sunni walkout

After reaching a power-sharing deal to end Iraq's political impasse eight months after elections and install Nuri al-Maliki as prime minister-elect, the war-torn country was again plunged into uncertainty.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki

Iraqi Prime Minister-elect al-Maliki still faces huge problems

Ministers from a Sunni-backed bloc stormed out of a government session Friday over what it said was the rejection of its demands, leaving the process once again in disarray.

Over 60 angry members of the Iraqiya party, the bloc of former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, walked out of a meeting in the Council of Representatives chamber, leaving the deal in the balance just hours after it had been sealed by Iraqi President Jalal Talabani. They claimed that the power-sharing deal they had been presented with was not being honoured and that three of the party's most senior members, barred for their alleged ties to Saddam's Baath party, had not been reinstated as promised.

As well as the annulment of the bans against the three Iraqiya members, Iraqiya had presented a further three conditions on which its participation in the power-sharing agreement would hinge: a bill forming the security body, a committee examining cases against political detainees, and codifying the power-sharing deal.

Iraqiya's support for any government is seen a hugely important if Iraq is not to descend into ethnic violence once more. The Sunni Arab minority, which gave Iraqiya a narrow victory in the contested March 7 poll, provided the heaviest resistance in the anti-US insurgency after the 2003 invasion. Its involvement in any coalition is imperative if peace is to be achieved.

Iraqiya's apparent rejection of the deal highlights the fierce divides and rivalries which have paralysed the Iraqi political system since the fall of Saddam Hussein regime.

The deal, clinched late Wednesday night after three days of high-pressure talks between the rival factions, saw Shiite Prime Minister al-Maliki returning to office for a second term. Talabani, a Kurd, is expected to retain the presidency. And a Sunni MP was to be elected as speaker of Parliament.

Maliki now has 30 days to form his cabinet, and the next parliamentary meeting is scheduled for Saturday.

The decision offered hope that the next government would include enough Sunni representation to lower the chances of a return to the sectarian violence that killed tens of thousands of people after the 2003, U.S.-led invasion that ousted Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein.

Iraqiya, who had held out for months to take the premiership from Maliki after it narrowly won more seats in the March election, initially confirmed it had finally signed up to the deal.

US praises deal

The Obama administration called the development "a big step forward for Iraq."

"All along we've said the best result would be a government that reflects the results of the elections, includes all the major blocs representing Iraq's ethnic and sectarian groups, and that does not exclude or marginalize anyone. That's exactly what Iraqis seem to have agreed to," Antony Blinken, national security adviser to US Vice President Joe Biden, said in a statement.

Former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi after the election

Former Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi's group finally agreed to the deal

Iraq has been without a new government since the vote, which gave Iraqiya two more seats than Maliki's bloc. Neither had enough for a majority in parliament, leaving the factions to negotiate a government.

Iraqiya initially joined a Kurdish alliance in supporting Maliki following months of contentious negotiations which raised tensions in Iraq as the army and police try to cement security gains against a stubborn insurgency.

Last month, Maliki toured capitals in the region - from Iran and Syria to Turkey and Egypt - to gain regional backing for his effort to stay in power. He offered Arab nations investment deals in Iraq in exchange for nudging Iraqiya toward a compromise, political sources said.

Court pressure paid off

Over the past months, Iraqiya repeatedly rejected another Maliki term and demanded the right to form the government as the top vote winner in the election. Parliament met briefly in June but lawmakers said they needed more time to decide who would hold the highest offices. Last month, Iraq's high court ordered parliament to resume its sessions, putting pressure on politicians to expedite a deal.

The long deadlock has fueled tension even though the sectarian carnage unleashed after the 2003 invasion is receding while U.S. forces prepare to withdraw in 2011.

A series of attacks on Christian targets across Baghdad on Wednesday stirred renewed fear in the minority community. The bomb and mortar blasts occurred just 10 days after a bloody siege at a Catholic cathedral that killed 52.

Author: Michael Knigge (Reuters, AFP)
Editor: Jennifer Abramsohn