Monday, August 27, 2007

BAGHDAD (Reuters) — Shi’ite, Sunni Arab and Kurdish political leaders announced yesterday they reached consensus on several key measures seen as vital to fostering national reconciliation.

The agreement by five leaders is one of the most significant political developments in Iraq for months and was quickly welcomed by the United States, which hopes such moves will ease the sectarian violence that has killed tens of thousands.

It comes amid growing frustration in Washington over the political paralysis that has gripped the government of Shi’ite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Responding to repeated calls for his ouster, Mr. al-Maliki yesterday lashed out at Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and other U.S. critics in the Democratic Party.

The apparent breakthrough comes just weeks before President Bush’s top officials in Iraq present a report on the country that could have a major influence on future American policy in Iraq.

“I hope that this agreement will help Iraq move beyond the political impasse,” Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih said.

“The five leaders representing Iraq’s major political communities … affirmed the principle of collective leadership to help deal with the many challenges faced by Iraq.”

The appearance of Mr. al-Maliki on Iraqi television with the four other leaders at a brief news conference was a rare show of public unity.

The other officials present were President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd; Sunni Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi; Shi’ite Vice President Adel Abdul-Mahdi, and Masoud Barzani, president of the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region.

Iraqi officials said the five leaders agreed on draft legislation that would ease curbs on former members of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath party who join the civil service and military.

Consensus was also reached on a law governing provincial powers, as well as setting up a mechanism to release some detainees held without charge, a key demand of Sunni Arabs since the majority being held are members of their sect.

The laws still have to be passed by Iraq’s fractious parliament, which has yet to receive any of the drafts.

Yasin Majid, a media adviser to Mr. al-Maliki, told Reuters the leaders also endorsed a draft oil law, which already was agreed to by the Cabinet but has not yet gone to parliament.

But a statement from Mr. Talabani’s office said more discussions are needed on the draft oil law and constitutional reforms. Committees also were formed to try to ensure a “balance” of Shi’ites, Sunni Arabs and Kurds in government.

The oil law is seen as the most important in a package of measures that were stalled by political infighting in Mr. al-Maliki’s government.

The lack of action has frustrated Washington, which has urged more political progress before the pivotal report on Iraq is presented to Congress in mid-September.

“We extend our congratulations to the five leaders for the spirit of cooperation that has characterized this effort,” the U.S. embassy said in a statement. “There is clearly more work to be done, but the approach taken by the five is the right one.”

The report by the U.S. military commander in Iraq, Gen. David H. Petraeus, and Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker is seen as a watershed moment in the four-year-old war, with Democrats likely to use the negligible political progress to date to press their case for quickly pulling out troops.

Mr. Bush pleads for patience, pointing to the military’s apparent success in reducing levels of violence between majority Shi’ite Muslims and minority Sunni Arabs.

But Democrats are not convinced, with Mrs. Clinton and fellow senator Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, calling for Mr. al-Maliki to be replaced.

Mr. al-Maliki hit back yesterday, saying: “There are American officials who consider Iraq as if it were one of their villages, for example Hillary Clinton and Carl Levin.”

“This is severe interference in our domestic affairs. Carl Levin and Hillary Clinton are from the Democratic Party and they must demonstrate democracy,” he said. “I ask them to come to their senses and to talk in a respectful way about Iraq.”

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