- Associated Press - Sunday, October 10, 2010

BAGHDAD (AP) — The Sunni-backed political coalition that narrowly won the most votes in Iraq’s parliamentary election appeared Sunday to be giving up its demand for the premiership, boosting the Shi’ite prime minister’s drive to keep his job.

The stunning turnabout is sure to inflame Iraq’s minority Sunnis, whose crucial support helped the secular Iraqiya movement edge ahead of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s political coalition in the March 7 parliamentary election. U.S. diplomats worry that if the Sunnis feel sidelined by backroom dealmaking over the formation of a new government, it could spark unrest.

A key Iraqiya leader said Sunday the party is no longer insisting on receiving the top job as long as it gets an equal share of power in Iraq’s government. It marks the strongest concession to date by Iraqiya and could break the seven-month political impasse that has stymied Iraq from seating a new government.

“We have reached a position that we don’t care anymore about posts,” said Sheik Adnan al-Danbous, a Shi’ite who is close to Iraqiya head Ayad Allawi. “Posts are not as important to us as having participation in decision-making.”

Sheik Al-Danbous said Iraqiya could live with Mr. al-Maliki keeping his job — so long as the party gets other plum positions, like the presidency or parliament speaker.

“We don’t mind if al-Maliki is the prime minister, but we have to have a decision-making post,” Sheik al-Danbous told the Associated Press.

Marginalized in Iraq’s power circles after Saddam Hussein’s ouster and after boycotting the first round of elections in 2005, Sunnis joined with Iraqiya this year in hopes of regaining political strength and credibility. Sunnis make up the majority of Iraqiya, which is widely recognized as the largest and most influential nonreligious political alliance.

Mr. Allawi, the party’s leader and a former prime minister, is a Shi’ite.

Sunday’s comments marked a surprising change of course for Iraqiya, which after the election appeared poised to lead Iraq away from hard-line religious politics and toward a more secular government.

Iraqiya won two more parliamentary seats than Mr. al-Maliki’s bloc in the March vote, but neither won enough seats to control parliament outright, touching off a scramble to rally support from other political parties that has dragged on for more than seven months.

Mr. al-Maliki also got a boost last month by forging an alliance with anti-American Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr that all but sealed the prime minister’s hold on his job.

That, too, prompted an outcry from Sunnis, some of whom predicted the end of democracy in Iraq if Mr. al-Maliki remains in power.

Separately Sunday, two small Sunni political groups joined forces in hopes of wielding some influence in the ongoing power struggle. Though their new Iraqi Centrist Alliance only holds a combined 10 seats in parliament, its merger likely signals Sunni frustration with being left out of negotiations.

The new Sunni alliance will “include all political parties, and all social components will be represented without neglecting anyone,” lawmaker Salim Abdullah al-Jibouri said.

Sheik Al-Danbous said the negotiating was far from over, however, noting that it is still not clear what top role Iraqiya might get as part of the deal — especially since Mr. al-Maliki has all but promised Kurdish parties that they will keep the presidency post.

It still could take months — until early 2011 — before a government is formed, Sheik al-Danbous said.

All U.S. military troops are set to leave Iraq by the end of 2011.

Meanwhile, Iraqi authorities said they broke up a Baghdad cell of the Islamic State of Iraq, an umbrella group for Sunni insurgents that is linked to al Qaeda in Iraq, and charged at least two of its members with orchestrating a series of bombings on foreign embassies in the capital.

Maj. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi, a military spokesman, said the cell also coordinated a July bombing against the offices of Arabic-language news channel Al-Arabiya that killed six people, and another at an AsiaCell mobile telephone store last month.

Gen. al-Moussawi showed videotaped confessions of two of the men and said they led authorities to at least four other terror suspects. One of the men, identified as Sinan Abid Humod al-Janabi, described himself as an operative for the terror network’s car-bombing sector in western Baghdad.

Associated Press writer Lara Jakes contributed to this report.