BAGHDAD, (AP) – The Sunni-backed political coalition that narrowly won the most votes in Iraq’s parliamentary election appeared Sunday to be giving up its demand for the premiership, boosting the Shiite prime minister’s drive to keep his job.
The stunning turnabout is sure to inflame Iraq’s minority Sunnis, whose crucial support helped the secular Iraqiya movement edge ahead of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s political coalition in the March 7 parliamentary election. U.S. diplomats worry that if the Sunnis feel sidelined by backroom dealmaking over the formation of a new government, it could spark unrest.
A key Iraqiya leader said Sunday the party is no longer insisting on receiving the top job as long as it gets an equal share of power in Iraq’s government. It marks the strongest concession to date by Iraqiya, and could break the seven-month political impasse that has stymied Iraq from seating a new government.
“We have reached a position that we don’t care anymore about posts,” said Sheik Adnan al-Danbous, a Shiite who is close to Iraqiya chief Iyad Allawi. “Posts are not as important to us as having participation in decision-making.”
Al-Danbous said Iraqiya could live with al-Maliki keeping his job — so long as the party gets other plum positions, like the presidency or parliament speaker.
“We don’t mind if al-Maliki is the prime minister, but we have to have a decision-making post,” al-Danbous told The Associated Press.
Marginalized in Iraq’s power circles after Saddam Hussein’s ouster and after boycotting the first round of elections in 2005, Sunnis joined with Iraqiya this year in hopes of regaining political strength and credibility. Sunnis make up the majority of Iraqiya, which is widely recognized as the largest and most influential nonreligious political alliance.
The party’s leader, former Prime Minister Allawi is a Shiite.
Sunday’s comments marked a surprising change of course for Iraqiya, which after the election appeared poised to lead Iraq away from hard-line religious politics and toward a more secular government.
Iraqiya won two more parliamentary seats than al-Maliki’s bloc in the March vote, but neither won enough seats to control parliament outright, touching off a scramble to rally support from other political parties that has dragged on for more than seven months.
Al-Maliki also got a boost last month by forging an alliance with anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr that all but sealed the prime minister’s hold on his job.
That, too, prompted an outcry from Sunnis, some of whom predicted the end of democracy in Iraq if al-Maliki remains in power.
Separately Sunday, two small Sunni political groups joined forces in hopes of wielding some influence in the ongoing power struggle. Though their new Iraqi Centrist Alliance only holds a combined 10 seats in parliament, its merger likely signals Sunni frustration with being left out of negotiations.
The new Sunni alliance will “include all political parties and all social components will be represented without neglecting anyone,” lawmaker Salim Abdullah al-Jibouri said.
Al-Danbous said the negotiating was far from over, however, noting that it is still not clear what top role Iraqiya might get as part of the deal — especially since al-Maliki has all but promised Kurdish parties that they will keep the presidency post.
It still could take months — until early 2011 — before a government is formed, al-Danbous said.
All U.S. military troops are set to leave Iraq by the end of 2011.