Sunday, May 13, 2007

Iraqi Prime Minister Agrees To Bigger Sunni Role

n this photo released by the Iraqi Vice President media office, Iraqi Vice Presidents Tariq Al-Hashemi, right and Adil Abdul-Mahdi talk in Baghdad, Sunday, May 13, 2007. Al-Hashemi has been pressing for a greater role for the three-man presidential council to offset what he sees as Prime Minister al-Maliki's excessive powers. (AP Photo)

The AP reports:
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki agreed to give Sunnis a bigger role in security operations in their areas, lawmakers said Sunday, in a deal that staves off a threatened Sunni walkout that could have toppled the Shiite leader's embattled government.

The deal reached with Iraq's Sunni vice president could help assuage long-standing Sunni complaints that Shiite-dominated security forces unfairly target Sunni areas but avoid cracking down on Shiite militias linked to influential politicians.

The Bush administration has been pushing al-Maliki for months to reach out more to the once-dominant Sunni Arab minority, giving them a genuine role in the running of the country as part of a wider drive toward national unity that officials hope will reduce the country's rampant violence.

The lawmakers said the deal was reached in talks last week between al-Maliki and Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, who had threatened to withdraw his bloc from the government if Sunni demands were not met. His bloc controls 44 of the 275 parliament seats.

Under the terms, al-Hashemi will have an "executive role" in the fight against insurgents in Sunni areas inside and outside the capital of Baghdad, the lawmakers said. Al-Maliki remains the armed forces' commander in chief, they said.

However, the agreement was described by lawmakers as an understanding rather than a formal pact, and similar arrangements have broken down in the past.

"The government realized that we were not just making empty threats, so they took us seriously" said Sunni lawmaker Salim Abdullah, a member of al-Hashemi's Iraqi Islamic Party, the country's biggest Sunni political group.

"The ball is now in the government's court," said Abdullah, who confirmed the deal along with a Shiite lawmaker close to al-Maliki. The Shiite spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release information to the media.

One Sunni Arab politician, Omar Abdul-Sattar, said 11,000 volunteers from Sunni areas west of the capital have been waiting for months to hear news about their applications to join the army.

Reconciliation is a key benchmark the U.S. wants al-Maliki's government to meet at a time of growing congressional opposition to the war. Other benchmarks include a new law to distribute oil revenues equitably among all Iraqis and amendments to the constitution to address Sunni demands.

Vice President Dick Cheney pressed al-Maliki during a visit last week to reach out to the Sunnis. A government official familiar with the talks said the pressure may have brought about the deal with al-Hashemi. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.

Cheney met al-Hashemi twice during his two-day stay in Iraq. He conferred with the three-man presidential council — comprising Kurdish President Jalal Talabani, Shiite vice president Adil Abdul-Mahdi and al-Hashemi — and later had a one-on-one session with al-Hashemi.

Al-Maliki's administration is supposed to be a "national unity government," with a Sunni Arab serving as his deputy for security and another in the key defense job. But Sunni Cabinet members have repeatedly complained of being marginalized and kept out of the decision-making process.

Al-Hashemi himself complained in a recent interview that al-Maliki was running the country as a "one-man show."

In the deal with al-Hashemi, al-Maliki also agreed not to stand in the way when judicial authorities release Sunni Arab detainees suspected of having links to insurgent groups, but have not been formally charged. The U.N. says more than 37,000 detainees, most of them believed to be Sunnis, were being held by Iraqi and U.S.-led forces as of March 31.

It also provides for an end to government threats to lift the parliamentary immunity of Sunni lawmakers so they can be questioned about suspected links to insurgent groups.

Al-Hashemi had wanted a halt to security raids targeting the homes and offices of Sunni lawmakers and the arrest of their personal security details, but it was unclear if al-Maliki accepted those demands.