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Iraqis overturn ban on Sunni politicians


Move clears way for bloc to join al-Maliki government

BAGHDAD – Iraq’s parliament knocked away one of the last barriers to forming a new government Saturday when it struck down a ban on three Sunni Muslim politicians.

The reinstatement of former lawmaker Saleh al-Mutlaq and two other politicians virtually guaranteed that their secular Iraqiya bloc, popular with Iraq’s Sunnis, will join Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government.

Different Iraqi political groups and U.S. officials have pushed for a coalition government with a big role for the country’s Sunni minority, who after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 waged an insurgency against the Americans and the new Shiite elite.

Al-Mutlaq and the others were barred from running in last spring’s elections by the Accountability and Justice Commission, which had the task of blocking senior members of the late dictator Saddam Hussein’s Baath party from high positions in the government or military.

The board banned hundreds of mainly Sunni politicians, helping to polarize the country along religious lines.

The election ended in a near draw between al-Maliki’s bloc and the Iraqiya slate, headed by a secular Shiite, Iyad Allawi. The inconclusive results ushered in an eight-month deadlock that raised fears that the country’s Shiites and Sunnis were incapable of sharing power.

Soon after Saturday’s vote, al-Maliki’s supporters announced that the prime minister would submit his Cabinet to parliament Monday.

But the date could easily be postponed if new crises erupt before then. Blocs remain split over who should head the key security ministries; and Allawi, the head of Iraqiya, has yet to formally accept his new position as the head of the National Council for Higher Policies, a body that would help set government policies.

Iraqiya wants the body’s decisions to be binding, while al-Maliki’s supporters have resisted Allawi’s push for greater powers.

Even in Saturday’s session, the tensions over repealing the ban on al-Mutlaq, former lawmaker Dhafer Ani and politician Jamal Karbouli were evident.

After a statement that the men had signed denouncing the Baath party was read, the measure passed by 101 votes to 69. Prominent Shiite lawmakers attended the vote but did not raise their hands in a silent protest, while others stayed away in a symbolic dissent. A senior member of al-Maliki’s coalition, outgoing Education Minister Khudair Khuzaie, said that the Shiites needed to honor their deal with Iraqiya, but wanted to show their supporters that they did not support the Baath party.

“What we did today was we (practiced) realism and flexibility, but we didn’t give away our values and principles,” Khuzaie said.

Ahmed Chalabi, the head of the de-Baathification panel, said lifting the ban on al-Mutlaq and the other politicians was made possible by a decision last month by Iraq’s political parities to abolish the vetting commission entirely within two years.

“These politicians have the right to assume posts in the executive authority or in the government but not in the legislative authority or the parliament,” Chalabi said.