Iraq's newly re-elected president, Jalal Talabani, has asked incumbent Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki (pictured) to form a new government during a tense session of parliament, raising the prospect of an end to eight months of political deadlock.
REUTERS - Iraqi lawmakers voted to reappoint incumbent Jalal Talabani as president on Thursday and he nominated Nuri al-Maliki to stay on as prime minister.
The two appointments were part of an agreement that ended an eight-month deadlock and took place despite a walkout by two-thirds of the MPs of former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi's Sunni-backed Iraqiya bloc.
Earlier, lawmakers picked a Sunni politician, Osama al-Nujaifi, as speaker of parliament.
The pact on top government posts brings together Shi'ites, Sunnis and Kurds in a power-sharing arrangement similar to the last Iraqi government and could help prevent a slide back into sectarian bloodshed.
Sunnis, dominant under Saddam Hussein, would have reacted with outrage had Allawi's alliance been excluded from government. Some may still feel cheated because of the appointment of Maliki, a Shi'ite.
The walkout by Iraqiya members was a sign of the turbulent relations among the partners in the new government.
Under the deal, other Iraqiya members will be given cabinet jobs, such as that of foreign minister. Allawi himself will head a council of strategic policies.
"Thank God last night we made a big achievement, which is considered a victory for all Iraqis," Kurdish regional president Masoud Barzani said at a news conference in Baghdad.
OPEC member 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 an election on March 7 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 session of parliament on Thursday was just the second in more than eight months since the vote. After picking Nujaifi as speaker, lawmakers must choose a president who in turn nominates a prime minister, who has 30 days to form a government.
Allawi pushed hard to displace Maliki as prime minister after Iraqiya won two seats more than Maliki's coalition in the vote.
The distribution of the top posts along ethnic and sectarian lines was a reflection of the divisions that define Iraq after more than seven years of warfare unleashed by the U.S. invasion.
Washington formally ended combat in August but 50,000 U.S. troops remain to advise and assist the nascent army and police before a full withdrawal next year.
Overall violence has fallen sharply since the height of sectarian slaughter in 2006-2007, but killings and bombings still occur daily, followed every few weeks by a major, devastating assault by insurgents in which dozens are killed.
Tension mounted as Maliki and Allawi wrestled over power. Rockets and mortars were fired at Baghdad's fortified Green Zone district of government offices in the past few days and insurgents killed dozens of people in an attack on a Catholic church and on Shi'ite areas of the capital.
Maliki's return is likely to anger Sunni hardliners, who abhor what they see as Iran's influence over Iraq's Shi'ite leaders and his Islamist background, and Sunni Islamist insurgents, who view Shi'ites as apostates.
While the deal created a job for Allawi and gave Iraqiya a controlling position in parliament, some Sunnis may still feel marginalised, as they did after the previous election in 2005.
"In one way or another, we have the same atmosphere as in 2005 when Sunnis felt they were misrepresented in government, which in turn contributed to instability," said Yahya al-Kubaisy, a researcher at the Iraq Institution for Strategic Studies. He called Allawi's new job a "face-saving measure".
Despite political squabbles and continuing violence that has unsettled some foreign investors, global oil majors are working to crank up production in Iraq's vast oilfields.
Officials hope to raise production capacity to 12 million barrels per day from 2.5 million now, vaulting Iraq into the top echelon of world producers.