Iraq's Sunni-backed bloc to end parliament boycott

BAGHDAD Sun Jan 29, 2012 5:26pm GMT

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq's Sunni-backed Iraqiya political bloc said on Sunday it would end a boycott of parliament, easing the worst political crisis in Shi'ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's power-sharing government in a year.

The decision by Iraqiya clears the way for talks among fractious Shi'ite, Kurdish and Sunni blocs, but deep disputes over power-sharing remain unresolved, keeping alive the risk that Iraq could fall back into widespread sectarian violence.

The crisis erupted days after the last U.S. troops left Iraq in December, when Maliki's government sought the arrest of Sunni Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi and moved to sideline one of his Sunni deputies who branded Maliki a dictator.

The political blocs are planning a national conference to try to ease the turmoil.

"As a goodwill gesture, Iraqiya announces its return to parliament meetings to create a healthy atmosphere to help the national conference, and to ... defuse the political crisis," Iraqiya spokeswoman Maysoon al-Damluji told a news conference.

Damluji's announcement followed a meeting of Iraqiya's top officials including bloc leader Iyad Allawi, Parliament Speaker Osama al-Nujaifi, Finance Minister Rafie al-Esawi and Saleh al-Mutlaq, the deputy prime minister Maliki had tried to oust.

She said the leaders would meet again to decide whether Iraqiya ministers would return to cabinet meetings.

Iraqiya's return to parliament could shore up Maliki's position for now, but the Sunni-backed bloc is deeply divided over whether to stay in the fragile power-sharing arrangement.

Maliki says his initiative against Hashemi was judicial and not political, but his moves against two key Iraqiya figures have compounded fears among Iraqi Sunnis that he wants to consolidate Shi'ite control and his own power.

Hashemi remains in Iraq's semi-autonomous Kurdistan region where his immediate arrest is unlikely.

BIDEN CALLS

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden has spoken to Allawi and Nujaifi by phone over the past days to discuss "the importance of resolving outstanding issues through the political process," Biden's office said.

Saleem al-Jubouri, an Iraqiya leader, said the bloc had come under international pressure to end the boycott, which he said had forced other countries to recognize the crisis in Iraq.

"The problem still exists and it could blow up again at any minute," Jubouri said.

A senior Iraqiya Sunni leader who asked not to be named said ending the boycott was the only way to keep the bloc together.

"Many factions within Iraqiya would split off if the leaders

insisted on going into opposition or continuing the boycott," the official said.

Since the U.S. invasion toppled Saddam Hussein, a Sunni, in 2003, the Shi'ite majority has ascended, leaving Sunni Muslims feeling sidelined from power. Kurdish political blocs have more often reached political deals with Shi'ite parties.

The power-sharing agreement took almost a year to cobble together and has struggled to work when considering key laws such as a national hydrocarbons bill.

The political turmoil has been accompanied by a string of attacks on Shi'ite targets that have stirred worries Iraq could slide back in the kind of sectarian slaughter that killed tens of thousands of Iraqis a few years after the invasion.

(Writing by Patrick Markey; Editing by Jim Loney and Alessandra Rizzo)

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