Signs of reconciliation as Sunnis rejoin cabinet

In a shift toward political reconciliation and away from sectarianism, Iraq's largest Sunni bloc ended a nearly yearlong boycott Saturday and rejoined the cabinet, retaking six ministry spots.

Until now, some Iraqis questioned how well Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Shiite-led government represented the nation's Sunnis, who were in the ruling class under Saddam Hussein. Only two of the 38 ministries were given to Sunnis even though they make up 20 percent of Iraq's population. Many hope the new posts will symbolize that the government is committed to much-needed reconciliation.

Reconciliation could lead the Iraqi government to find the economic and political means to maintain recent security gains. While Iraqis nationwide celebrate the improvements, they believe their government is too divided to compromise across sectarian lines.

The largest Sunni bloc, the Iraqi National Accord, said they rejoined the government because the schism between the party and al-Maliki had diminished and that many of their demands had been met.

“The Maliki government is working on the positive side, but we still have some unresolved issues. We still have sectarianism in the government. So we want to make sure there is a balance,” said Dhafar al-Ani, a parliamentarian and a member of the bloc. The Iraqi security forces, he added, “still randomly detain people. And they still have secret interrogations. And there are issues with the amnesty program.”

The bloc suspended its membership from parliament and withdrew from Maliki's government last August, saying the Iraqi security forces was sectarian, Sunni Arabs were being unjustly thrown into jail and Maliki was ignoring the needs of the Sunnis in favor of his fellow Shiites. The parliament members returned a month later, but not the ministers from the bloc.

There had been several efforts in the past months to fill the posts, but the warring political factions could not agree on the names. But on Saturday, the members were conciliatory as the candidates introduced themselves to the parliament before the legislators voted by raising their hands.

The parliament named Rafeh al-Issawi the new deputy prime minister. The other posts included the ministries of higher education, state for foreign affairs, culture, communications and state for women's issues.

The Sunni decision to rejoin al-Maliki's government and the Shiite's willingness to accept them was driven by this fall's scheduled provincial elections. The Sunni bloc expects to lose power to their provincial rivals, so it wants to retain as much power at the national level. And the Shiite politicians want to claim they are reconciling with their one-time Sunni opponents.