After an eight-month stalemate, Iraqi leaders have reached an agreement that keeps Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in power but distributes other key posts. Despite ongoing tensions between Maliki and his primary rival, Iyad Allawi, many hope this will stave off violence.
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Leaders of the main political factions in Iraq finally agreed today to a new government. The development was closely watched in Washington, with thousands of American troops still deployed in Iraq.
The Iraqi political system had been paralyzed for eight long months, until Parliament met today. The session came hours after a new power-sharing agreement was unveiled. Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani announced the deal involving the Kurds, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Shiite National Alliance, and the coalition Al-Iraqiya backed by the Sunni minority.
MASSOUD BARZANI, president, Iraqi Kurdistan Region (through translator): The three top posts, which are the presidency, the prime minister post, and the Parliament speaker post, the Kurds will get the presidency, the National Alliance will get the prime minister post, and Iraqiya will get the post of the Parliament speaker.
During yesterday's meeting and, at the last moment, our brothers in Al-Iraqiya acted with high responsibility and decided to join the government and to attend the Parliament session.
The Sunni-supported Al-Iraqiya was led by former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite. His followers actually won the most seats last March, but not a majority. Now they have accepted a government that leaves Prime Minister al-Maliki in power.
And current president, Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, retains his office as well. Allawi will head a new council overseeing national security, which could be used by Sunnis as a check on Maliki's power.
Tensions between the two men were clear today. They initially sat together in Parliament. But, later, Allawi and 57 Sunnis walked out. They wanted an immediate vote to stop purging former followers of Saddam Hussein.
The U.S. had pushed for a strong role for Sunnis in the new government, fearing they might slide back into insurgency otherwise. Instead, Maliki's new governing coalition includes a Shiite bloc led by radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. That union was brokered by the government of Iran, which has long advocated an Iraqi government dominated by Shiite religious parties.
Even so, in Washington, Anthony Blinken, national security adviser to Vice President Biden, called the agreement "a big step forward" for Iraq and "a bad result for those whose agenda is more sectarianism and violence."
Indeed, U.S. officials now hope for a slow return to stability, after months of mounting violence. Just last week, coordinated attacks across Baghdad killed at least 76 Iraqis. Days earlier, a siege on a Christian church left 58 people dead.
In the meantime, some 50,000 U.S. troops remain in Iraq. Their formal combat mission ended in August, but they still back Iraqi operations and hunt terrorists.