Iraq's Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki speaks while Parliament Speaker Mahmud Al-Mashahdani (R) listens during a press conference held after the opening ceremony of the national reconciliation conference in Baghdad, March 2008. The Iraqi parliament has voted for the return of six Sunni ministers to the cabinet Maliki, giving a fresh boost to the country's reconciliation programme.(Xinhua/AFP File Photo)
BAGHDAD, July 19 (Xinhua) -- The Iraqi government on Saturday endorsed a list of ministerial posts, including candidates from a leading Sunni party alliance which quitted the government a year ago.
The return of Sunnis marks a positive step towards achieving political reconciliation in the country plagued by sectarian feud.
Six portfolios went to the Sunni bloc Iraqi Accordance Front (IAF), including a deputy prime minister, ministers for higher education, culture and communication, and ministers of state for foreign affairs and women's affairs.
Four independent candidates filled up the vacuum left after the withdrawal of a Shiite party last year.
"What happened today is a national step forward to boost the government's role and take the national reconciliation ahead," said the bloc's spokesman Saleem Abdullah.
"The IAF is committed to supporting the national unity government, as long as it moves in the right direction, and the government in return is committed to giving the IAF a real active participation," he said.
The IAF is the third largest bloc in the parliament. It pulled its six members out of the cabinet in August, claiming that the Shiite-led government had snubbed its demands like a greater share of power and the release of Iraqis jailed for security reasons, including a considerable number of Sunnis.
A Shiite party led by radical cleric Muqtada Sadr and the secular party headed by former interim government Prime Minister Iyad Allawi also followed suit last year.
Their walk-out left the 40-member cabinet nearly half vacant and had negative impact on the post-war reconstruction and national reconciliation efforts.
Sunnis Arabs favored under Saddam Hussein's regime represent about 20 percent of the country's population. They lost their preference when Iraq's majority Shiites held sway after the former ruler's ouster in 2003.
Their rivalries led to a flare-up of sectarian fighting which aimed to tip the country into an all-out civil war.
The United States has been asking Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's government to bring back the Sunnis so that a genuine national reconciliation could be achieved to shore up a security gain.
Since late last year, the Iraqi government has taken actions in an effort to soothe the Sunnis.
The parliament passed a government-proposed amnesty law in February, which would free tens of thousands of detainees.
Iraq also has adopted a legislation through which more members of Saddam Hussein' Baath party will have access to government jobs.
Still, Maliki has ordered a series of security operations against outlaw militia, notably those belonging to Sadr.
Despite the return of the IAF, rifts are emerging within the Sunnis themselves.
The leading party within the Sunni bloc, the Iraq Islamic Party(IIP), is expected to face strong challenges in the upcoming provincial elections in October from grassroots Sunnis who accuse it of doing little to improve their lives.
As an alliance of Sunni Arab tribes, the Awakening Council plays a key role in Iraq's security turnaround by standing up against the al-Qaida network.
The alliance intends to flex its muscles in the provincial elections as an up-and-coming political force.
In the Sunni-populated Anbar province, the Awakening Council, which controls the police and the IIP sitting on the provincial council, has been exchanging accusations and threatening in a struggle for power.
The Awakening Council involves local armed groups, especially some powerful anti-U.S. Sunni insurgent groups, who fight the al-Qaida network after the latter committed indiscriminate killings against both Shiite and Sunni Muslim communities.
The Iraqi government acknowledges the Awakening Council's contribution to the security improvement around Iraq in recent months, but remains concerned that the groups could grow into new militia in the future.