Iraq's Sunni-Backed Bloc Ends Parliament Boycott

The Iraqiya coalition, a Sunni-backed political bloc in Iraq, has called off its Parliament boycott that began in mid-December, but a decision on the bloc rejoining the country's power-sharing Cabinet is yet to be taken.

"The Iraqiya bloc announces, as gesture of goodwill, that it will return to participate the Parliament sessions," it announced on Sunday, adding that the move was aimed at creating a healthy atmosphere to help the "national conference" and to defuse the ongoing political crisis.

The development comes amid a Shia-Sunni power struggle triggered by a warrant issued for the arrest of Sunni Vice-President Tariq al-Hashemi on terror charges. Hashemi is a senior leader of the Iraqiya bloc headed by former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi.

Hashemi, who is accused of running a death squad that targeted government and security officials, has denied the charges. But the Iraqi government claims that three suspects, identified as Hashemi's bodyguards, have linked the Vice-President to killings and attacks on several Iraqi government and security officials. Further, the Iraqi state television aired footage of what it claimed were confessions of the three suspects linking Hashemi to the crimes.

Hashimi is currently hiding in the northern semi-autonomous region of Kurdistan, which has its own government and security forces. Iraqi officials said he had been ordered not to leave the country. Despite repeated requests by the Iraqi government to hand him over, the Kurdistan government is yet to comply.

The Iraqiya bloc withdrew from the Parliament soon after the Supreme Judicial Council, the country's highest judicial body, issued the arrest warrant against Hashemi on terrorism charges on December 19. The bloc also accused Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shia politician, of monopolizing power by retaining key posts in the government for his Shia bloc.

The Iraqiya-led coalition had won most number of seats in the Parliament in the March 2010 general elections. However, it was Maliki who managed to put together a unity government involving almost all the major political parties from all sides of the sectarian divide, including the Iraqiya-led coalition, mainly due to the backing of other Shia political parties.

The warrant for Hashemi has evoked fears that it may trigger fresh sectarian violence in the divided country after the recent withdrawal of American forces. Analysts also believe that it puts the country's delicate power-sharing agreement at risk.

The last of the U.S. troops departed from Iraq last month, ending a decade-long American military presence since the 2001 invasion of the Middle East nation. The U.S. combat mission in Iraq formally ended on August 31, 2010, in line with a bilateral security agreement to pull out all U.S. troops from the country by the end of 2011. The U.S. military presence in Iraq is now restricted to just 157 soldiers who are entrusted with the security of the U.S. Embassy.

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