- The Washington Times - Friday, August 17, 2007

BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraq’s political leaders emerged yesterday from three days of crisis talks with a new alliance that seeks to save the crumbling U.S.-backed government. But the reshaped power bloc included no Sunnis and immediately raised questions about its legitimacy as a unifying force.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki hailed the agreement as a first step toward unblocking the paralysis that gripped his Shi’ite-dominated government since it first took power in May 2006.

The new Shi’ite-Kurdish coalition will retain a majority in parliament — 181 of the 275 seats — and apparently have a clear path to pass legislation demanded by the Bush administration, including a law on sharing Iraq’s oil wealth among Iraqi groups and returning some Saddam Hussein-era officials purged under earlier White House policies.

A crucial progress report by U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker and commander Gen. David Petraeus is due in Congress in less than a month. But a senior U.S. Embassy official hesitated to join in Mr. al-Maliki’s enthusiasm since the new alliance of Shi’ites and Kurds failed to bring in Sunnis, who were favored under Saddam and are crucial to efforts for future stability.

The U.S. official said “all three principle communities” in Iraq need to find ways to “make accommodations and compromises and ultimately reconciliation.” The official spoke on the condition he not be identified by name.

The key disappointment was the absence of Iraq’s Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi and his moderate Iraqi Islamic Party. That portends even deeper political divisions, but Mr. al-Maliki called the agreement “a first step.”

“It is not final and the door is still open for all who agree with us on the need to push the political process forward,” he said.

Mr. al-Maliki was joined at a press conference to announce the political grouping by President Jalal Talabani and fellow Kurd Massoud Barzani, the leader of the northern autonomous Kurdish region; and Shi’ite Vice President Vice President Adel Abdul-Mahdi.

They, along with the U.S. ambassador, were said to have wooed Mr. al-Hashemi intensely to join the new leadership bloc. But officials in the al-Maliki government said the Sunni vice president wanted too much.

Among his demands was that members of his Iraqi Islamic Party fill all the Cabinet posts vacated by a mass resignation by another party, the Sunni Accordance Front, according to officials.

The officials said Mr. al-Hashemi also wanted one of his loyalists to replace Sunni Deputy Prime Minister Salam al-Zubaie.

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