Parties that walked out of Iraq's government last year have agreed to rejoin, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said on Thursday, in what could amount to a long-awaited political breakthrough.
The main Sunni Arab bloc, the Accordance Front, said it intended to submit a list of candidates for cabinet positions within days and could be back in al-Maliki's government soon. Its return has long been a major goal of the United States.
But al-Maliki also repeated a warning that militia groups must disarm, a sign he is unlikely to reconcile quickly with Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his political movement.
"Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said that reconciliation has proved a success and all political blocs will return to the government," al-Maliki's office said in a statement after al-Maliki met visiting British Foreign Secretary David Miliband.
The Accordance Front quit al-Maliki's Shiite-led government last year at a time when most violence in Iraq pitted minority Sunni Arabs against majority Shiites.
But violence between those two communities has declined dramatically over the past year, and the Front signaled it was drawing closer to al-Maliki by backing his crackdown on al-Sadr's Shiite Mahdi Army militia, begun last month.
Front spokesman Salim al-Jubouri told Reuters the group intended to submit a list of candidates for cabinet posts "in a few days," which the cabinet could then present to parliament.
"Our return to the government is very close," he said.
A return of the Front would effectively unite the leaders of all of Iraq's major political groups apart from the Sadrists, who argue a government crackdown on militias is an attempt to sideline them ahead of provincial elections in October.
Al-Sadr pulled his six ministers from al-Maliki's government a year ago after al-Maliki refused to set a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops. That rift deepened last month when al-Maliki, also a Shiite, ordered a crackdown on the Mahdi Army.
"For us, this government has lost its credibility as a government of national unity. It does not represent all the sects of Iraq and we are not ready to join a government which is a threat to the new Iraq," Sadr bloc member of parliament, Ahmed al-Masoudi told Reuters.
Crackdown won't stop
Al-Maliki made clear he intends to continue the crackdown.
"It is forbidden to practice peaceful political activity while carrying arms. Everyone should work as politicians and it is not permitted for a single weapon to be outside the hands of the state," the statement from the prime minister's office said.
Miliband, on an unannounced visit, said Britain supported the crackdown, which was launched in Basra, a city formerly patrolled by British troops.
"Over the last few weeks, the government ... has taken decisive steps to extend security in key parts of the country," he said. Britain has around 4,000 troops stationed at an airbase on the outskirts of Basra. It has delayed pulling out 1,500 of them in the wake of al-Maliki's crackdown.
While fighting has eased in Basra, source of most of Iraq's oil exports, clashes have taken place every day in and around al-Sadr's eastern Baghdad stronghold of Sadr City.
U.S. Major-General Jeffery Hammond, commander of U.S. forces in the capital, said his troops had taken control of the southern part of Sadr City over the past month to prevent rocket attacks on the Green Zone diplomatic and government compound.
Militia members have fired more than 700 rockets and missiles in Baghdad over the past month, many of them aimed from Sadr City at the Green Zone.
Hammond said the U.S. military had no plans to take control of the rest of Sadr City, adding the operation so far had put the Green Zone out of range of 107 mm rockets fired from territory still controlled by militants.
"I only went into Sadr City for the rockets," he told reporters, adding that U.S. forces were now building walls to protect the area they had occupied and bring in aid.