The Iraqi prime minister and president announced a new alliance of moderate Shiites and Kurds in a push to save the crumbing government Thursday, saying a key Sunni bloc refused to join but the door remained open to them.
The pact came amid a grim backdrop: more bodies being pulled from the rubble of the most deadly suicide bombing assault of the war. The Interior Ministry spokesman said the death toll in northern Iraq was at least 400 from Tuesday’s attacks against a small religious sect. Earlier, some military and medical authorities said at least 500 people died.
The political agreement reached by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was the first step to unblock political stagnation that has gripped his Shiite-led government since it first took power in May 2006. But the announcement after three days of intense negotiations was disappointing because it did not include Iraq’s Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi and his moderate Iraqi Islamic Party.
Al-Maliki has been criticized for having a Shiite bias and failing to stop Iraq’s sectarian violence, which persists despite the presence of tens of thousands of extra U.S. troops.
Emergency workers and grieving relatives in northern Iraq, meanwhile, pressed ahead with recovery efforts two days after a quadruple suicide truck bombing in the village of Qahataniya near the Syrian border. The attacks targeted Yazidis, a small Kurdish-speaking sect whose members are considered to be blasphemers by Muslim extremists.
Dakhil Qassim, the mayor of the nearby Sinjar town, said reports by other local officials that the casualty toll had risen to 500 dead and more than 375 wounded were true.
The Interior Ministry spokesman, Brig. Gen. Abdul-Karim Khalaf, said at least 400 people were killed and that two tons of explosives were used in the blasts.
Zayan Othman, health minister for Iraq’s nearby autonomous Kurdish region, said Wednesday that 250 bodies had been pulled from the rubble and some 350 people were injured, but he could not immediately be reached for an update on Thursday. The figures could not be independently checked because the area was under curfew and casualties had been taken to numerous hospitals.
But even the lower death estimate far surpassed the previous bloodiest attack of the war — 215 people killed by mortar fire and five car bombs in Baghdad’s Shiite Muslim enclave of Sadr City on Nov. 23.
In Baghdad, a car bomb struck a parking garage in a central commercial district during the morning rush hour Thursday, killing at least nine people and wounding 17, police said. Smoke poured out of the seven-story concrete building, and food and merchandise stalls below were left charred.
At the news conference announcing the political accord, President Jalal Talabani and al-Maliki were flanked by the leader of the northern autonomous Kurdish region, Massoud Barzani, and Shiite Vice President Vice President Adel Abdul-Mahdi.
The four men signed a three-page agreement they said ensures them a majority in the 275-member parliament that would allow action on legislation demanded by the U.S.
Talabani, a Kurd, said al-Hashemi refused the invitation to join in the new political grouping but “the door is still open to them and they are welcome at any time.”
Al-Maliki also called on the Sunni Accordance Front, which includes al-Hashemi’s party, to return to the government and heal a rift that opened when the bloc’s five Cabinet ministers quit the government.
The four-party agreement was unveiled four weeks before the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker are to deliver a progress report on Iraq to Congress.
“We have relegated efforts to topple the government to the past. We are now in a new stage,” said al-Maliki’s adviser, Yassin Majeed. “We will keep working to bring the Accordance Front back, but if they insist we will have a majority in parliament and bring in new ministers.”
The attack against the Yazidis dealt a serious blow to the Bush administration’s hopes of presenting a positive picture in the progress report to Congress, which comes as legislators face a fierce debate over whether to begin withdrawing American forces.