- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Iraqi parliament on Tuesday unanimously approved a new government headed by Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who apparently has appeased the Sunni-backed bloc that bested his own party in the country’s March elections.

The bloc previously had been granted the speakership of the parliament, and Mr. al-Maliki’s Cabinet bestowed on it the top posts in the ministries of finance, agriculture, communications, industry, education, science and technology, among others.

Leading Iraqiya figure Saleh al-Mutlaq also was named a deputy prime minster.

Mr. Mutlaq was one of three Sunnis who was allowed to re-enter the political process after the Council of Representatives voted Saturday to exempt them from the ban on former associates of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party.

But it was the participation of former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, who led Iraqiya to victory in the March elections, that proved most promising for those who had seen the bloc’s participation as key to preventing the marginalization of the country’s Sunni minority and a potential return to the sectarian violence that paralyzed the country for much of 2006 and 2007.

“We are announcing our full support for the government,” Mr. Allawi said Tuesday.

Mr. Allawi is expected to serve as head of a still ill-defined National Council for Strategic Policies. His grudging acceptance of the position marks a turnaround from last month, when he led a walkout of Iraqiya parliament members.

Mr. Allawi, a secular Shiite, became the de facto candidate of choice for the Sunni minority in the March 7 elections after teaming up with leading Sunni politicians like Mr. al-Mutlaq and Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi.

The bloc, which won the lion’s share of Sunni votes as well as some support from secular Shiites, finished first in the elections, with 91 parliamentary seats.

The Shiite vote was largely split between Mr. al-Maliki’s State of Law coalition, which won 89 seats, and the Iranian-backed Iraqi National Alliance, which won 70 - including 39 for followers of radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. The main Kurdish alliance won 43.

The fragmented outcome yielded months of struggle between Mr. Allawi and Mr. al-Maliki, both claiming the right to the premiership.

After the latter secured the requisite support to retain his job, earning the backing of the Kurds and the Sadrists, Iraqiya demanded the presidency for Mr. Allawi and, as reported by The Washington Times, received a hand from President Obama, who personally phoned President Jalal Talabani — a Kurd — asking him to step aside for Mr. Allawi.

Qubad Talabani, son of the president and chief U.S. representative for the Kurdistan Regional Government, noted in an interview that in partnership with the Shiites, the Kurds could have numerically formed a government without Iraqiya.

“We didn’t for a few reasons, one of which was because the United States didn’t want us to go it alone without Iraqiya,” he said. “So we held up the political process for much of those eight months to bring Iraqiya on board. But weren’t going to bring them on board at our own expense.”

Reidar Visser, senior research fellow at the Norweigian Institute of International Affairs and author of “A Responsible End? The U.S. and the Iraqi Transition,” said that despite the bloc’s failing to secure the premiership or the presidency, the offer of plum jobs had proved irresistible for several Iraqiya leaders.

“Iraqiya has climbed down a good deal from their original bargaining position,” he said, “but at the same time they have achieved something because they now form the biggest faction inside the Cabinet alongside that of Maliki’s own State of Law.”

Mr. Visser said that Mr. al-Maliki now faces the challenge of balancing the political demands of the Sunnis and Kurds, which conflict in many key areas, such as the future status of the ethnically mixed, oil-rich city of Kirkuk.