Iraq's leaders agree on key benchmarksBy Waleed Ibrahim and Wisam Mohammed
BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq's top Shi'ite, Sunni Arab and Kurdish political leaders announced on Sunday they had reached consensus on some key measures seen as vital to fostering national reconciliation.
The agreement by the five leaders was the most significant political development in Iraq for months and was immediately welcomed by the United States, which hopes such moves will ease sectarian violence that has killed tens of thousands.
"I hope that this agreement will help Iraq move beyond the political impasse," Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih told Reuters.
"The five leaders representing Iraq's major political communities .... affirmed the principle of collective leadership to help deal with the many challenges faced by Iraq."
The appearance of Shi'ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki on Iraqi television with the other leaders was a rare show of public unity amid crumbling support for the government.
The other officials at a brief news conference were President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd; Sunni Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi; Shi'ite Vice President Adel Abdul-Mahdi, and Masoud Barzani, president of the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region.
Iraqi officials said the leaders had agreed on draft legislation that would ease curbs on former members of Saddam Hussein's Baath party joining the civil service and military.
Consensus was also reached on a law governing provincial powers as well as setting up a mechanism to release some detainees held without charge, a key demand of Sunni Arabs since the majority being held are members of their sect.
The laws need to be passed by Iraq's fractious parliament, which has yet to receive any of the drafts.
Yasin Majid, a media adviser to Maliki, told Reuters the leaders also endorsed a draft oil law, which has already been agreed by the cabinet but has not yet gone to parliament.
But a statement from President Talabani's office said more discussions were needed on the draft oil law and constitutional reforms. Committees had also been formed to try to ensure a "balance" of Shi'ites, Sunni Arabs and Kurds in government.
The oil law is seen as the most important in a package of measures that have been stalled by political infighting in Maliki's government.
The lack of action has frustrated Washington, which has been urging more political progress before the pivotal report on Iraq is presented to the U.S. Congress around Sept. 11.
"We extend our congratulations to the five leaders for the spirit of cooperation that has characterised this effort," the U.S. embassy said in a statement.
"There is clearly more work to be done, but the approach taken by the five is the right one."
The report by the U.S. military commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, and ambassador Ryan Crocker, is seen as a watershed moment in the unpopular four-year-old war, with Democrats likely to use the negligible political progress to press their case for troops to begin pulling out soon.
Bush is pleading for patience, pointing to the military's apparent success in reducing levels of violence between majority Shi'ite Muslims and minority Sunni Arabs.
But Democrats are not convinced, with presidential hopeful Senator Hillary Clinton and fellow Senator Carl Levin calling for Maliki to be replaced.
Maliki hit back on Sunday, saying: "There are American officials who consider Iraq as if it were one of their villages, for example Hillary Clinton and Carl Levin."
"This is severe interference in our domestic affairs. Carl Levin and Hillary Clinton are from the Democratic Party and they must demonstrate democracy," he said. "I ask them to come to their senses and to talk in a respectful way about Iraq."
Washington's relations with Maliki have frayed in recent weeks, although Bush says he backs him.
(Additional reporting by Mariam Karouny, Peter Graff, Aseel Kami)
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