Iraq Leaders Reach Agreement On Key Benchmarks
Iraq's top Shiite, Sunni Arab and Kurdish leaders overnight announced they had reached consensus on some key laws that Washington views as vital to fostering national reconciliation. The appearance of Shiite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki on Iraqi television with the other leaders was a rare show of public unity amid crumbling support for the prime minister's government. The other officials at the news conference were President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd; Sunni Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi; Shiite Vice President Adel Abdul-Mahdi, and Masoud Barzani, president of the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region. Iraqi officials said the leaders had signed an agreement on easing restrictions on former members of Saddam Hussein's Baath party joining the civil service and military. "They signed a new draft on debaathification," said Yasin Majid, a media adviser to Mr Maliki. Other officials said consensus had been reached on holding provincial elections and releasing many detainees who have been held without charge, a key demand of Sunni Arabs since the majority are members of their sect. Mr Majeed said the leaders also endorsed a draft oil law, which has already been agreed by the cabinet but has not yet gone to parliament.The law is seen as the most important of a package of measures that have been stalled by political infighting in Mr Maliki's government between the political parties, who have been reluctant to compromise. The lack of political action has frustrated US President George W. Bush's administration, which has been urging more political progress before a pivotal report on Iraq is presented to the US Congress next month. The report by the US military commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, and ambassador Ryan Crocker, is seen as a watershed moment in the unpopular four-year-old war, with Democrats likely to use the negligible political progress to press their case for troops to begin pulling out soon. Mr Bush is pleading for patience, pointing to the military's apparent success in reducing levels of violence between majority Shiite Muslims and minority Sunni Arabs. But Democrats are not convinced, with presidential hopeful Senator Hillary Clinton and fellow Senator Carl Levin calling for Mr Maliki to be replaced. The embattled prime minister hit back today, saying: "There are American officials who consider Iraq as if it were one of their villages, for example Hillary Clinton and Carl Levin." "This is severe interference in our domestic affairs. Carl Levin and Hillary Clinton are from the Democratic Party and they must demonstrate democracy," he said. "I ask them to come to their senses and to talk in a respectful way about Iraq."