Iraqi officials on Thursday welcomed a tentative agreement struck hours earlier to create a unity government embracing the country’s major ethnic and religious factions, ending an eight-month political impasse and returning Nuri Kamal al-Maliki to power for a second term as prime minister.
The stalemate had stoked fears of a return to sectarian violence. The composition of the new government remained murky, however, and seemed to hold out the potential for more of the infighting, instability and vulnerability to insurgents that have hampered the country’s politics for years.
The deal late on Wednesday ensured, for now at least, the participation of Sunni Arabs, who supported the bloc led by Mr. Maliki’s chief rival, Ayad Allawi, which narrowly won the most seats in elections in March. The deal was struck when Mr. Allawi’s group relented and agreed to join the new government, said Jaber al-Jaberi, one of Mr. Allawi’s chief allies, despite months of adamantly insisting it would never do so.
In exchange, Mr. Allawi’s bloc, called Iraqiya, was given the position of speaker of the Parliament as well as leadership of a newly created committee overseeing national security, officials from three factions said. The creation of the committee was a compromise pushed by the Obama administration to ensure the participation of Sunnis, Iraq’s former rulers, who have been underrepresented in the Iraqi government since the American invasion.
Members of the Iraqiya alliance met on Thursday to consider the agreement ahead of a meeting of Parliament — only the second since the March election — scheduled to begin in mid-afternoon.
The agreement came after months of uncertainty and tension. “What was accomplished was a great achievement and a victory for all Iraqis,” Massoud Barzani, the president of the semi-autonomous Kurdish region, told a news conference. “Even though it came late and with regrets, it is considered a first step to a new beginning.”
Mr. Barzani and the Kurds, with 57 seats in the new 325-member Parliament, emerged as powerbrokers in the final talks, throwing their support behind Mr. Maliki in exchange for holding onto the presidency.
The Obama administration has for months urged Iraq’s quarreling factions to create a government that included all major ethnic and sectarian groups, lest the country descend into the chaos that consumed it in the worst years after the invasion of 2003.
Under the new pact, the county’s current president, Jalal Talabani, a Kurdish leader, would remain as president, solidifying the role of Iraq’s Kurds. The new government that will oversee the withdrawal of American troops will look much like the one that has governed in the past four tumultuous years.
But Mr. Allawi’s role in the new government remained to be defined. Mr. Jaberi said Iraqiya’s leaders would decide what positions they would take before Parliament met on Thursday.
Mr. Allawi, a secular Shiite who served as interim prime minister after the American invasion, appeared to accept defeat after insisting for months that he would settle for nothing less than the prime minister’s post.
Also unclear is the role for the bloc led by the anti-American cleric Moktada al-Sadr, whose surprise support for Mr. Maliki all but ensured the prime minister a second term. The broader alliance among parties and sects proposed by the United States was intended to minimize the influence of the Sadrists.
Joost Hiltermann of the International Crisis Group said that the compromise and the new council were necessary to ensure Sunni enfranchisement but that they would create an unwieldy coalition in power.
“You’re not going to have an effective government in Iraq anytime soon,” he said in a telephone interview from Washington.
The powers of the new council remain to be resolved as Mr. Maliki enters a second term as prime minister. “It’ll have to be more than ceremonial,” Mr. Hiltermann said of its role under the leadership of Mr. Allawi or one of his supporters. “But Maliki is going to hold on to as much power as possible.”
In late October the nation’s high court ordered Parliament to assemble, setting off a round of meetings and intense negotiations, including pressure from American officials.
The agreement is a victory for Mr. Maliki, who has proven a forceful and wily politician, unwavering in his determination to remain in office. How Mr. Maliki can now manage the unwieldy alliance is a big question. Rivalries among the various factions, including a bitter historical opposition between Mr. Maliki and Mr. Sadr, remain barely below the surface. Weeks or months of negotiation await, as the parties sort out who will lead various ministries.
Consistent with a process that has been maddeningly opaque, the lawmakers did not hold a news conference on Wednesday night to announce the agreement. The officials’ lack of transparency and the impasse itself have fostered cynicism in an electorate with no history of democratic participation.
The late-night agreement came on the heels of three days of violence that brought back echoes of the country’s worst years.
On Wednesday, a series of bombs exploded outside the homes of Christian families across Baghdad, the first such coordinated attack on Christian homes in the capital, and 10 days after a siege on a church that left 58 people dead.
At least one of the houses attacked Wednesday was bearing a banner mourning the death of a family member in the church siege.
“That’s how they knew about us,” said Kareem Butras, a disabled veteran whose brother-in-law was killed in the siege on Oct. 31 at Our Lady of Salvation, a Syrian Catholic church. “Other families we know received threats, but not us.”
Iraq’s fragile Christian minority has been diminishing since the fall of Saddam Hussein. The new attacks have persuaded yet more Christians to leave the country as soon as possible.
“We don’t know who is the enemy, when he’s coming, morning or night,” said Sami Bahnam, 40, who watched a bomb explode outside his home on Wednesday morning. “We don’t want to reach a point where a child dies and we say, ‘Why didn’t we leave the country sooner?’”
At least four people were killed and more than 30 wounded in the attacks, which involved about 14 bombs and two mortar shells, according to the Ministry of the Interior. At least one of the dead was a Muslim who was killed by a secondary bomb as he ran to offer help.
The Rev. Mayassr al-Qaspotros, whose cousin was one of two priests killed at Our Lady of Salvation, criticized top Sunni clerics for not denouncing the assault. Some Shiite leaders, including Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, have done so.
A Sunni extremist group, the Islamic State of Iraq, claimed responsibility for the church assault and promised more bitter attacks to come. NYT