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 one of the most significant political developments in Iraq for months and was quickly welcomed by the United States, which hopes such moves will ease sectarian violence that has killed tens of thousands.
But skeptics will be watching for action amid growing frustration in Washington over the political paralysis that has gripped the government of Shi'ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.
White House spokeswoman Emily Lawrimore congratulated Iraq's leaders on the accord, hailing it in a statement as "an important symbol of their commitment to work together for the benefit of all Iraqis."
The apparent breakthrough comes two weeks before U.S. President George W. Bush's top officials in Iraq present a report that could have a major influence on future American policy in Iraq.
"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."
Maliki's appearance on Iraqi television with the four other leaders at a brief news conference was a rare show of public unity.
The other officials present 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 five 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 Sunnis.
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 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 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 September 11.
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.
The White House's Lawrimore said in her statement that the United States would "continue to support these brave leaders and all the Iraqi people in their efforts to overcome the forces of terror who seek to overwhelm Iraq's democracy.
"The President also welcomes the desire of the Iraqi leadership to develop a strategic partnership with the United States based on common interests."
But Democrats are not convinced, and presidential hopeful Senator Hillary Clinton and fellow Senator Carl Levin have called 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."
(Additional reporting by Mariam Karouny, Peter Graff, Aseel Kami)
Iraq's leaders agree on key benchmarks - Source
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