Iraq's Maliki ends effort to bring back Sunni bloc

BAGHDAD Thu Nov 8, 2007 11:00am EST

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BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq's Shi'ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has given up trying to bring the country's largest Sunni Arab bloc back into his fractured government, officials said on Thursday.

The Accordance Front withdrew its six ministers from the cabinet in early August after saying Maliki had failed to address the bloc's demands for a greater say in government.

The move underscored the deep sectarian divide in Iraq, which has hobbled decision making and slowed progress on key laws Washington wants passed to boost reconciliation between warring majority Shi'ites and minority Sunni Arabs.

Maliki had pressed the Accordance Front to return to the cabinet in a letter in early August, government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh told Reuters.

But after waiting three months for a reply, the government officially removed five of the ministers from their posts last week, Dabbagh said. The decision received little publicity.

"We cannot keep these ministries empty," Dabbagh said.

The vacated posts include a position of deputy prime minister, minister of higher education and minister of culture.

One of the six ministers who had quit, Planning Minister Ali Baban, later decided to return to the cabinet, a move that prompted his Sunni Arab party to dismiss him.

Saleem al-Jubouri, a lawmaker and spokesman for the Accordance Front, said the bloc would not rejoin the government unless Maliki met its demands. Among other things, the Front wants a greater say in security matters.

Without the Accordance Front, Maliki's cabinet is largely made up of Shi'ite Muslims and Kurds.

Maliki has also been seeking to fill other cabinet posts left vacant by the withdrawal of other ministers this year, including a bloc loyal to Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.

He had selected nominees to head the communications, transportation and justice ministries, said Yasin Majid, a media advisor to the prime minister.

The nominees would be presented to parliament next week, Majid added, declining to reveal their names or party affiliations.

Late last month, Maliki managed to get two new ministers, both Shi'ite independents, confirmed by parliament to head the government's vacant agriculture and health portfolios.

The political paralysis has contrasted with improving security in Iraq, where levels of violence have fallen in recent months following the injection of an extra 30,000 American troops into the country this year, mainly in and around Baghdad.

U.S. military commanders often express disappointment at the lack of progress in political reconciliation at national level.

Parliament has still yet to pass key laws that would equitably divide up Iraq's vast oil wealth and allow former members of Saddam's Baath Party back into public life.

(Writing by Missy Ryan; editing by Dean Yates and Sami Aboudi)

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