Iraq's Sunni VP wants return to government

Eds: AMs.

AP Photo BAG104, BAG103

By SAMEER N. YACOUB

Associated Press Writer

BAGHDAD (AP) -- Iraq's Sunni Arab vice president on Saturday called the return of his boycotting political bloc to the Shiite-led Cabinet a priority, saying the government needs to reconcile quickly to "save Iraq."

Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi's comments were the latest to signal readiness by the main Sunni bloc, the National Accordance Front, to rejoin the government after an absence of nearly nine months.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki also said Friday that he expected to present a new Cabinet list "within a few days" -- a step that would be a boost to his government and seen by Washington as a significant step forward.

But while the two sides have said they were prepared to join forces for more than a week, internal power struggles within the National Accordance Front have delayed a formal announcement, according to a Sunni official familiar with the negotiations.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject, said disagreements were focused on who should hold which posts.

The Planning Ministry is currently headed by Ali Baban, who was expelled by the bloc after he broke ranks and agreed to return to his post. Some Front members want to take another ministry portfolio instead of being forced to accept Baban back into the fold, the official said.

Two of the three parties that comprise the bloc also are arguing over who should hold the deputy prime minister's post allotted to them, he added.

Al-Hashemi's support for a return to the government, which was announced in a statement by his office, was significant.

The Sunni leader has been one of al-Maliki's most bitter critics, accusing him of sectarian favoritism, while the prime minister has complained that the vice president is blocking key legislation.

But al-Hashemi and other Sunni leaders apparently have been swayed by al-Maliki's crackdown against Shiite militias that began late last month and focused on the feared Mahdi Army of anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Al-Maliki also has threatened to politically isolate al-Sadr if the Mahdi Army is not disbanded.

Shiite militias were responsible for the deaths of thousands of Sunni Arabs in the sectarian bloodletting of 2006 and 2007. The Mahdi Army is blamed for much of the killing.

Last week, several Sunni lawmakers said their bloc had agreed in principle to return to the government, although no formal announcement has been made.

"The priority today should be given to re-establishing a national government with a clear political program, and to deal with the basic issues regarding services," al-Hashemi said.

"This country needs patriotic stances by parties, one of which is to re-establish a national government as soon as possible so that this new government can take quick important steps in order to save Iraq," he added.

Al-Maliki has struggled to keep together the disparate factions of his government and reconcile Iraq's feuding Shiite and Sunni politicians. The Cabinet has limped along with nearly half of the 39 Cabinet posts vacant.

When the Accordance Front withdrew from the government in August, they had five Cabinet posts, plus the vice premiership. Besides Baban, the only other Sunni in the Cabinet, Defense Minister Abdul-Qader al-Obeidi, is an independent who remained in his post throughout.

Al-Sadr's followers also left the government last year after the prime minister, himself a Shiite, refused their demands for a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq.

A government official, who also declined to be identified because he wasn't authorized to release the information, said the main Shiite bloc the United Iraqi Alliance would nominate independents to fill the Sadrists' vacant posts since the movement remains locked in a standoff with the government.

Clashes continued Saturday in the Mahdi Army stronghold of Sadr City, a sprawling district in northeastern Baghdad, although they did not appear as fierce in recent days.

The Shiite cleric on Friday called for an end to Iraqi bloodshed, saying his threat of an "open war" applied only to U.S.-led foreign troops. But al-Maliki said he would only end the crackdown if four conditions were met, including surrendering weapons.

Two suspected militants were killed Saturday when an unmanned drone fired a Hellfire missile at a vehicle after observing them loading weapons inside at about 3:30 p.m., the military said.

Hospital officials said eight bodies were received of people killed in overnight fighting, while 12 other people, including a schoolboy, were wounded in early Saturday.

Three suicide car bombers also targeted Iraqi security forces, killing at least seven people in the northern city of Mosul, which is believed to be the last urban stronghold of al-Qaida in Iraq. Baghdad.

The attacks began in Mosul, 225 miles northwest of Baghdad, about 5 p.m. when a suicide car bomber blew up near an Iraqi army checkpoint, killing three soldiers and wounding six other people, police spokesman Brig. Gen. Khalid Abdul-Sattar said.

A suicide attacker struck another checkpoint about 30 minutes later, wounding 15 civilians who were lined up to have their vehicles inspected, according to the spokesman.

Another suicide car bomber struck a police patrol elsewhere in the city at 8 p.m., killing four people and wounding seven, Abdul-Sattar said.

--------

Associated Press writers Qassim Abdul-Zahra and Bushra Juhi contributed to this report.