The surprise decision by a Sunni Arab party to rejoin the Iraqi government at the weekend was one of several last-minute moves designed to curb domestic US pressure to withdraw troops and to show that Iraqis are capable of compromise.

This decision, along with a broad-brush deal reached between leaders of five of Iraq’s big parties a fortnight ago, may allow US officials testifying before Congress next week to argue that the strife-torn country’s long political deadlock is beginning to break.

However, Iraqi politicians have yet to deliver the actual legislation to parliament, suggesting that key political compromises – which the US hopes will undercut support for Sunni rebels – remain elusive.

A report released last week by the US Government Accountability Office said Iraq had fully met only three out of 18 benchmarks for political, economic and military progress – adding weight to demands that the US should withdraw rather than propping up an ineffective Iraqi government crippled by sectarian differences.

Saleh al-Mutlek, head of the Iraqi National Dialogue Front, the second-largest Sunni bloc in parliament, was quoted by news agencies at the weekend as saying that his group’s 11 parliamentarians would end a boycott of the assembly.

Mr Mutlek said the group had received assurances from the government that funds would be given to displaced Iraqis – thought to be disproportionately Sunni.

The government had agreed to delay a controversial oil law, he said. He praised Washington for taking what he said was a more even-handed approach in talking to Shia Arabs, Kurds and Sunni Arabs.

Iraq’s largest Sunni Arab coalition, the Iraqi Consensus Front, continues to boycott the government.

However, Mr Mutlek’s statement was the latest in a series of small signs of rapprochement between Sunni-led parties and the country’s Shia and Kurdish-dominated government. The most important step has been an August 27 deal between the leaders of the main parties from all three communities.

They proclaimed a partial amnesty for security detainees – the great majority of whom are presumed to be Sunni – as well as agreement on the texts of the oil and de-Ba’athification laws to be presented to parliament.

Ryan Crocker, US ambassador to Baghdad, is likely to cite the August deal in US Congress testimony this week. He may also concede that political progress in Iraq on the national level has not kept pace with the military’s counter-insurgency campaign.

Mr Mutlek’s claim that the government has agreed to delay the oil law suggests that the August deal may not yield immediate dividends.

The government does not appear to have made much progress in selling the laws to sceptics, including many Shia as well as Sunni representatives. Critics of the oil law say it will allow foreign companies and the autonomous regional government in the Kurdish-dominated north too great a role in controlling Iraq’s oil resources.

Opinion is also divided over the law to roll back de-Ba’athification, which some influential Shia clerics say would allow “criminal” members of the former
ruling party to return to public life.

Nonetheless, there are indications of increased goodwill between the leaders of Iraq’s main parties – or at least a determination to forestall the withdrawal of US troops, which many in Iraq say would lead to a power vacuum.

Tareq al-Hashemi, Iraq’s Sunni Arab vice-president, has announced that 50 detainees will be released each day during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which begins this week.

The US military is hoping that political breakthroughs will boost its campaign to turn Sunni Arab tribes against the radical al-Qaeda network.

Sunni tribal leaders are perhaps most concerned with seeing their kin released from detention, while a reversal of de-Ba’athification is considered necessary to bring former military officers and others who once allied with the insurgency back into the political process.

The US hopes the oil law will reassure Sunnis that they will still receive a solid share of national oil export revenues under a new political order dominated by the Shia majority.

US officials also hope that Iraq’s government will pass a law to allow new provincial elections, which would give legitimacy to local authorities in Sunni areas where much of the population boycotted previous votes.

But Shia leaders are sceptical of US plans to support Sunni tribes and may be reluctant to hand power back to a former ruling class that some say cheated the Shia majority of a rightful political role in the country for generations.

Sunni politicians might also be stepping up their demands. Washington desperately wants Iraqi compromises that it can show the US public to forestall pressure to withdraw troops.

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