BAGHDAD — Iraq's parliament approved key leadership positions Thursday in the first step toward forming a new government, after a breakthrough deal that returns Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to office for a second term but falls short of Sunni hopes for greater political power.
Al-Maliki and his top rival Ayad Allawi, who had hoped to take the prime minister's post at the top of a Sunni-backed coalition, sat next to each other in the parliament chamber in an apparent sign of unity after a contentious, eight-month political fight over the formation of the government.
The deal reached late Wednesday breaks eight months of deadlock, but raises concerns that Sunnis could return to the ranks of the insurgency, fueling new violence as the United States prepares to remove the last of its troops from the country by the end of next year. The Sunni minority had put great hopes in the March elections and succeeded in lifting their bloc to a hair's-breadth victory, only to be outmaneuvered by Iranian-allied Shiites who preserved their domination of the new government.
It also is potentially a setback for the U.S., which has been pushing for a greater Sunni say in power, and a boost for regional rival Iran.
Sunnis, who dominated Iraq under Saddam Hussein, would have reacted with outrage, however, had the Sunni-backed Iraqiya alliance of ex-premier Iyad Allawi been totally excluded from government. Some may still feel cheated because of al-Maliki's return.
The deal will see Kurd Jalal Talabani retain the presidency.
Widely hated by Kurds
A complete parliament vote on the government could still take several weeks, as the factions work out the details of who gets what posts. But the session Thursday paved the way with the first formal steps, starting with the naming of a parliament speaker.
Under the agreement, the post went to a figure from Allawi's Iraqiya bloc — Osama al-Nujaifi, a Sunni hard-liner who holds staunch support among his community in northern Iraq but is widely hated by Kurds. His power and personality may be able to bring more authority to what has been a lackluster position in the past.
Lawmakers were then electing two deputy speakers — a Kurd and a Shiite — and possibly would elect the president later Thursday.
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"Thank God last night we made a big achievement, which is considered a victory for all Iraqis," Kurdish regional president Masoud Barzani said earlier at a news conference in Baghdad.
OPEC producer Iraq, trying to rebuild its oil industry after decades of war and economic sanctions and to quell a stubborn Sunni Islamist insurgency, has been without a new government since a March 7 election that failed to produce a clear winner.
"The most important issue now is that we are out of the bottleneck," said Amer al-Fayyadh, the dean of political science at Baghdad University.
"The formation of a government is now in sight."
Allawi forced to make a deal
A Sunni-backed coalition led by Allawi won the most seats in the March 7 parliament elections, but not a majority. Religious Shiite parties were able to put together enough seats to force Allawi to make a deal, thwarting his bids for both the prime minister job and the presidency.
Instead, Allawi will lead a newly created council to oversee issues of security and foreign policy. But the council's powers remain vague: Al-Maliki is unlikely to give up the reins over security issues, and one of his key Shiite partners — the staunchly anti-American Sadrist movement — also appears to be angling for a hand as well.
"I don't think we got what we wanted. We are the biggest bloc, and we won the election," said a lawmaker from Allawi's Iraqiya party, Jaber al-Jaberi, of the Sunni stronghold Ramadi. "We earned the right to form the government. However, there were powerful forces ... and we compromised."
The United States praised the fact that the new government would have at least some Sunni presence.
"The apparent agreement to form an inclusive government is a big step forward for Iraq," said Tony Blinken, national security adviser to Vice President Joe Biden, the administration's point man for Iraq.
Barzani praised the deal, calling it fair to all blocs. "We cannot expect that any block gets everything," he said. There was no immediate comment from Allawi. According to media reports, Allawi, al-Maliki and Barzani met Thursday, but there was no confirmation of the meeting.