|Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdistan Regional Government, helped broker the political deal [REUTERS]
Iraqi politicians have broken an eight-month political impasse by agreeing to take part in a new unity government headed by the incumbent prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki.
The Sunni-backed Iraqiya coalition, which had been opposing al-Maliki's continuation in power, has decided to join his government.
"This is a great victory for Iraqi people, which regretfully came at a late stage," Massoud Barzani, the president of the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region, said on Thursday after brokering the unity deal.
Iraqiya will join the Kurdish alliance in supporting another four-year term for al-Maliki following months of contentious negotiations.
The parliament convened in Baghdad, the capital, on Thursday for only the second time since an inconclusive March 7 election left Iraq without a government.
As first orders of business, members of parliament were to approve the power-sharing deal, appoint a new speaker and his deputies, and appoint the president and prime minister.
The positions of president and prime minister were set to go unchanged, but lawmakers voted in a new face, Sunni Arab politician Osama al-Nujaifi, as speaker of parliament.
Al-Nujaifi is a member of the Iraqiya party and maintains a power base in the north, particularly in Mosul, the city of his birth. Though his Arab nationalist attitudes reportedly caused problems with the Kurds, al-Nujaifi visited Arbil, the Kurdish capital, during government-formation talks.
Rounding out the country's three major government positions, Jalal Talabani, leader of the Kurdish political coalition, is set to retain the largely ceremonial position of president.
Meanwhile, Iyad Allawi, a former prime minister and head of Iraqiya who is also favoured by the US, is expected to become the leader of a newly created Council for National Strategy, which will have authority over security.
Rageh said the strategic council is intended to serve as a check on the prime minister's power.
"Al-Maliki emerged as a clear winner ... But it's not entirely bad news for the Sunnis," Rageh said.
"Finally, fortunately, it's done. It's finished. All the groups are in it,'' said Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish politician who took part in the nearly seven hours of negotiations on Wednesday.
Ali al-Dabbagh, a government spokesman and member of al-Maliki's State of Law coalition, said Iraqiya had decided after extensive talks to accept the parliament speaker's job and cede al-Maliki the prime minister's position.
Iraq has been without a government since the March 7 vote, which gave Iraqiya two more seats than State of Law.
Neither alliance had enough seats for a majority in parliament, forcing the factions to negotiate a government.
Over the past eight months, Iraqiya had repeatedly rejected another al-Maliki term and demanded the right to form the government as the top vote winner in the election.
Politicians from the National Alliance party, led by former prime minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari and including Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, said they would proceed with government formation as long as they had a political majority - even if other blocs chose to boycott Thursday's parliamentary session.
"We do not imagine a government that does not represent all Iraq's factions ... But the government does not and will not stop, God forbid, if a list stays behind," al-Jaafari said.
Parliament met briefly in June, but politicians said they needed more time to decide who would hold the highest offices.
Last month, Iraq's high court ordered parliament to resume its sessions, putting pressure on politicians to expedite a deal.
Despite receding Shia-Sunni violence, the long parliamentary deadlock has fuelled tension as US forces prepare to withdraw in 2011.
A series of attacks on Christian targets across Baghdad on Wednesday stirred renewed fear in the minority community.
The bomb and mortar blasts occurred just 10 days after a bloody siege at a Catholic cathedral in the capital that killed 52 people.