Iraq gets new government after coalition deal
Iraq will finally get a new government on Thursday after politicians hammered out a late-night deal to end eight months of wrangling following an indecisive election.
The country's 249 days of impasse set a new world record, and led to fears in America and among its neighbours that it could descend into civil war.
The nationalist Iraqiya party, headed by the pro-western secular former prime minister, Ayad Allawi, agreed under heavy pressure to back a national unity coalition.
That coalition will be led by the current prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, whom Mr Allawi detests. Iraqiya won two more seats that Mr Maliki's mainly Shia State of Law party in the March elections, and until this week Mr Allawi had been refusing to play second fiddle to his great rival.
Jalal Talabani, the Kurdish leader who holds a balance of power between the religious Shia, secular Shia and Sunni groups that make up Iraq's fractured politics, will remain president, a largely ceremonial post.
Iraqiya will be offered the position of speaker, a compromise it previously rejected, and will also provide the foreign minister. There will also be a new inner council of ministers to oversee defence and security issues – a suggestion from Washington, which was keen to see Mr Allawi join a government.
Mr Allawi is Shia, but factions within his party are the main voice of Iraq's Sunni minority. Its participation in government was seen as vital to prevent disaffected Sunnis joining al-Qaeda or other insurgent groups.
Mr Allawi's bid for power was also opposed by Iran, who negotiated an alliance between State of Law and other more radical Shia groups to boost Mr Maliki's hopes of staying in office. An Iraqiya presence in government will also be welcomed by Washington and Iraq's Arab neighbours as a brake on Iran's growing regional influence.
"The apparent agreement to form an inclusive government is a big step forward for Iraq," said Tony Blinken, who is national security adviser to Joe Biden, the vice-president who has overseen Iraq policy.
"All along we've said the best result would be a government that reflects the results of the elections, includes all the major blocs representing Iraq's ethnic and sectarian groups, and that does not exclude or marginalise anyone."
The agreement means that the most fiercely anti-American political party in Iraq, the Sadrist movement, which joined the Shia alliance, is also likely to join the government. American officials previously said that this was acceptable so long as they did not win control of any security-related ministry.
The Sadrists' Mahdi Army fought a bitter war with both American and government forces following the 2003 invasion, and were only finally defeated in 2008.
Mr Allawi will still be accused by some Sunnis of caving in to Mr Maliki and allowing Iran a greater influence in Iraqi politics. "The pressure of Iran was too much," said Saleh al-Mutlaq, a Sunni Iraqiya leader.
However, the immediate issue will be whether such a diverse government can work together to improve security sufficiently to prevent a continued flight of the educated classes and for economic growth to resume.
Mr Maliki is accused of using the all-powerful prime minister's office to exert an often brutal control over the levers of government and the security forces. The outcome of negotiations show that his position was scarcely weakened by the Wikileaks revelations last month of extensive use of torture and even murder in Iraqi jails.
Parliament will meet later on Thursday for only the second time since the election to ratify the deal.
"Tomorrow in parliament, it will be the beginning of forming not just the government, but forming the Iraqi state," Mr Maliki said on Wednesday night. "God willing, we will go ahead."