BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Parties that walked out of Iraq’s government last year have agreed to rejoin, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said on Thursday, in what could amount to a long-awaited political breakthrough.
The main Sunni Arab bloc, the Accordance Front, said it intended to submit a list of candidates for cabinet positions within days and could be back in Maliki’s government soon. Its return has been a major goal of the United States.
But Maliki also repeated a warning that militia groups must disarm, a sign he is unlikely to reconcile quickly with Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and his political movement.
“Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said that reconciliation has proved a success and all political blocs will return to the government,” Maliki’s office said in a statement after Maliki met visiting British Foreign Secretary David Miliband.
The Accordance Front quit Maliki’s Shi’ite-led government last August, at a time when most violence in Iraq pitted minority Sunni Arabs against majority Shi’ites.
But violence between those two communities has fallen sharply, and the Front signaled it was drawing closer to Maliki by backing his crackdown on Sadr’s Shi’ite Mehdi Army militia, begun last month.
Front spokesman Salim al-Jubouri told Reuters the group intended to submit a list of candidates for cabinet posts “in a few days,” which the cabinet could then present to parliament.
“Our return to the government is very close,” he said.
The Front’s exit following a range of policy disagreements left Maliki’s cabinet with mainly Shi’ites and Kurds.
It set back efforts to draw Sunni Arabs, who had been dominant under the late dictator Saddam Hussein, closer into the political process and away from Iraq’s insurgency and sectarian bloodshed, in which tens of thousands of Iraqis have been killed.
A return of the Front would also be a major political boost for Maliki at a time when he is trying to isolate the Sadrists, who argue the crackdown on militias is an attempt to sideline them ahead of provincial elections in October.
Sadr pulled his six ministers from Maliki’s government a year ago after Maliki refused to set a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops. That rift deepened last month when Maliki, also a Shi’ite, ordered a crackdown on the Mehdi Army.
“This government has lost its credibility as a government of national unity. It does not represent all the sects of Iraq,” Sadr bloc member of parliament Ahmed al-Masoudi told Reuters.
Maliki made clear he intended to continue the crackdown.
“It is forbidden to practice peaceful political activity while carrying arms. Everyone should work as politicians and it is not permitted for a single weapon to be outside the hands of the state,” the statement from the prime minister’s office said.
Miliband, on an unannounced visit, said Britain supported the crackdown, which was launched in Basra, a city formerly patrolled by British troops.
Shortly after Miliband left Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone, a rocket hit Poland’s embassy compound in the zone.
Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski said in Warsaw that the attack lightly wounded one security officer.
The fighting in Basra late last month prompted Britain to delay plans to withdraw up to 1,500 of its 4,000 soldiers stationed at an airbase on the city’s outskirts.
British Defence Secretary Des Browne said on Thursday that hold on drawdowns would remain for the time being.
While fighting has eased in Basra, source of most of Iraq’s oil exports, clashes have taken place every day in and around Sadr’s eastern Baghdad stronghold of Sadr City.
The U.S. military said it launched six helicopter strikes against militants in Sadr City on Thursday, killing 10 fighters.
U.S. Major-General Jeffery Hammond, commander of U.S. forces in the capital, said his troops had taken control of the southern part of Sadr City over the past month to prevent rocket attacks on the Green Zone diplomatic and government compound.
Militia members have fired more than 700 rockets and missiles in Baghdad over the past month, many of them aimed from Sadr City at the Green Zone.
“I only went into Sadr City for the rockets,” Hammond said.
Additional reporting by Dean Yates, Tim Cocks, Peter Graff and Aseel Kamil and Gabriela Baczynska in Warsaw; Writing by Tim Cocks and Peter Graff