- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 20, 2008

BAGHDAD | Iraq’s largest Sunni Arab political bloc ended a nearly yearlong boycott of the Shi’ite-led government Saturday in another step toward healing the sectarian rifts that once brought almost daily bloodshed.

The National Accordance Front agreed to return after parliament approved six Sunni officials to fill vacant seats in the Cabinet.

But the gesture had wider implications. It was seen as a significant step toward political reconciliation and efforts to cement security cooperation between Shi’ite-led forces and armed Sunni groups that rose up against al Qaeda in Iraq.

The United States has pressured Iraq’s government to work toward reconciliation, hoping it will add stability and ease the burden on U.S. and other foreign forces.

On a visit Saturday to Baghdad, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said plans are being made to scale back the number of troops in Iraq, but refused to consider an “artificial timetable” for withdrawing Britain’s remaining 4,000 soldiers.

Mr. Brown’s comments — after meetings with Iraqi leaders — come in advance of a scheduled address to British lawmakers on Iraq, when he is expected to give more details on troop-reduction plans as insurgent attacks and militia violence drop sharply.

No specific troop-withdrawal figures have been made public, but a senior British military officer has predicted substantial troop cuts in Iraq next year.

“It is certainly our intention that we reduce troop numbers, but I am not going to give an artificial timetable at the moment,” Mr. Brown said after talks with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and President Jalal Talabani.

Although Britain maintains the second-largest foreign military force in Iraq, it is dwarfed by the approximately 150,000 U.S. soldiers currently in the country. Mr. Brown’s meeting in Baghdad also included Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq.

The break in the Iraqi political impasse came after parliament unanimously backed Sunni candidates to fill the post of deputy prime minister and to head five midlevel ministries, including higher education and communications. Four other Cabinet posts were filled by Shi’ites.

The Front pulled its members from the 39-member Cabinet in August, complaining it was sidelined in important decisions. The political rift left Mr. al-Maliki’s government without partners in bids to find common ground with Sunni leaders.

Sunni Arabs, who represent about 20 percent of the country, were highly favored under then-President Saddam Hussein, but the tables turned after his ouster when Iraq’s majority Shi’ites held sway. The rivalries spilled over into a wave of sectarian killings and al Qaeda bombings apparently aimed at triggering civil war.

But Sunni sheiks last year began to organize militias - later known as Awakening Councils - against insurgents. Their role has been considered key in undercutting al Qaeda networks and helping reduce violence in Iraq to its lowest levels in four years.