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Iraqi Parliament Welcomes Return of Sunni Politicians

Iraq's Parliament Speaker welcomed Sunni Arab politicians back to Iraq's Shi'ite-led government Sunday. The nation's main Sunni bloc ended a year-long boycott of the government on Saturday, after parliament approved six Sunni officials to fill Cabinet posts. VOA's Suzanne Presto reports from the northern city of Irbil.

Parliament Speaker Mahmoud al-Mashadani welcomed members of the Accordance Front bloc back to the government in Baghdad.

Mashadani said the Front's return to government signifies more than simply the return of this political bloc - also known as Tawafiq. He said it marks the return of government representatives of Iraq's Sunni Arab population.

Mashadani said the politicians' return comes at an excellent time, as the government takes advantage of recent successful security operations to focus on investment and rebuilding.

Parliament voted on Saturday to approve six Sunni politicians for vacant Cabinet positions. Sunni lawmakers will assume ministerial posts for higher education, culture, telecommunication, foreign affairs and women's affairs, and also take a post as deputy prime minister.

The Sunni bloc's return to government is being heralded as a major breakthrough for national reconciliation in a country that is at times sharply divided along religious and ethnic lines.

Iraq's Sunni Arab minority enjoyed great political power under Saddam Hussein, who was also a Sunni Arab. This dynamic changed after Saddam was overthrown in 2003, and the nation's majority Shi'ites and minority ethnic-Kurds assumed a greater role in government.

The Accordance Front had been boycotting Cabinet meetings since June of 2007. It accused Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Shi'ite-led administration of not making enough concessions to the Sunni minority.

The political bloc formally withdrew from the government last August, saying the government failed to meet the bloc's demands to address Shi'ite militias and power-sharing issues.

Since then, the government has launched crackdowns on Shi'ite militants, particularly in Basra in the south and eastern Baghdad's Sadr City. And Iraq's parliament has approved a conditional amnesty law to enable the release of many Sunni prisoners from Iraqi jails.

The Accordance Front is made up of multiple political parties, the most powerful of which are the General Council for the People of Iraq, the Iraqi National Dialogue Council and the Iraqi Islamic Party.

The bloc's spokesman, Salim al-Jubouri, has hailed the Front's return to government as "a real step forward for political reform." He added that the newly minted ministers would attend the next Cabinet meeting.