BAGHDAD //Nouri al Maliki, the Iraqi prime minister, is expected to name his cabinet today, amid signs of growing reconciliation between bitterly divided political factions.
Ayad Allawi, Mr al Maliki's arch rival for the job of premier, yesterday announced he would join the national unity government, as head of a yet-to-be created strategic policy council.
The involvement of his Iraqiyya bloc in the administration had, up until then, been hanging in the balance, despite a power-sharing deal struck between Mr al Maliki, Mr Allawi and the Kurdish political leader, Massoud Barzani, last month.
"We will accept the leadership of this council based on the agreements that have occurred and have been signed between me and Mr Barzani and Mr Maliki," the Iraqiyya leader told a news conference yesterday.
Mr Allawi had previously questioned the willingness of Mr al Maliki, the head of the National Alliance, to commit to genuine power sharing, and cautioned he would not join the broad-based government if the council were toothless. He repeated that warning yesterday, saying his Sunni-backed bloc, which narrowly and indecisively won elections in March, could still pull out of the deal if its terms were not honoured.
"If there is any change to the agreements on power, then there will be a different story all together," he said.
This announcement came the day after parliament voted to lift a pre-election ban on three key Iraqiyya members, over their alleged links to the outlawed Baath party. The three men, including Saleh al Mutlaq, a senior Iraqiyya figure now touted as likely to take a position in the new government, were excluded from running for parliament by a Shiite-led committee who said they were Baath Party loyalists. Their blacklisting, part of a controversial process to weed Baathists from government, was seen as a thinly veiled attempt to bar Sunnis from returning to power.
The decision to lift the ban - it is unclear if parliament technically has the power to do so, rather than referring the matter to the judiciary - did not undo the work of the committee entirely, or amount to its dissolution. It did, however, meet a key political demand of Iraqiyya's in exchange for joining an al Maliki-led government.
"It is a big step forward," said Mohammad al Jabouri, an Iraqiyya MP. "We have to throw out the past and focus on the future if we are to build the country. It's a positive signal that the political blocs are working together."
National Alliance MP, Abbas al Beyati, echoed the sentiment. "We are trying to focus on the future and work to see a governing alliance that represents all of Iraq's different sects," he said.
The lifting of the ban has effectively been taken by Iraqiyya as a down payment - a sign of good faith that Mr al Maliki and his allies are going to adhere to the power-sharing deal. That is critical because of issues of timing. Under constitutional rules, the prime minister must name his government by Friday, a deadline that falls long before the new national council Mr Allawi is to lead can be created.
Mr Allawi is therefore being asked to keep his side of the bargain and join the unity government before Mr Maliki fulfills his promise over the national council.
That council still poses a major challenge to the creation of a sustainable administration. Mr Allawi's allies have insisted it must have real decision-making prerogatives, while Mr Maliki's allies have said it will only have an advisory role and will not act as a brake on prime ministerial powers.
Parliament is scheduled to begin considering legislation for the new council tomorrow, the start of a process that will take months to complete, not only because it is certain to be highly controversial but because it requires an amending the constitution.
Today's anticipated announcement of a cabinet, although four days ahead of schedule, is expected to be incomplete. Key security posts, including the minister of defence and minister of interior, are to be left empty because of on-going problems finding suitable candidates for such sensitive roles.
Handing out ministerial positions is a delicate balancing act for Mr al Maliki, who must try to satisfy the different groups in his supporting coalition, as well as Iraqiyya.
For that reason, the cabinet is set to have 42 members - more than in the previous administration - prompting fears it will be unwieldy and inefficient, a common complaint among Iraqis leveled against the old government.
Until the security posts are filled, Mr al Maliki will retain charge of the defence and interior ministry portfolios, putting more power directly in his hands than was the case during his last term. That interim period could last months, according to MPs.