Iraq’s main Sunni Arab political bloc withdrew from the government Wednesday, blaming Shiite Muslim leaders for not addressing sectarian issues, as explosions in the streets killed at least 70 people around Baghdad.
Six Cabinet members with the Iraqi Accordance Front, Tawafiq in Arabic, had suspended participation in the government in June and threatened last week to pull out permanently. The Sunni bloc took the action after its demands that Sunni detainees be released and that Shiite militias be addressed were not met.
The pullout reduces Iraq’s Shiite-dominated government to little more than caretaker status. Barring a major political realignment, it also makes it less likely that Prime Minister Nouri Maliki’s regime will be able to reach significant compromises on legislative benchmarks sought by the Bush administration to help quell sectarian strife.
Tawafiq member Tariq Hashimi retains his post as one of Iraq’s vice presidents.
The bloc’s pullout cast the gravest challenge yet to Maliki’s tenure as prime minister. His government has been burdened for months by talk of conspiracies, most prominently featuring former interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi.
Scenarios included tapping Maliki’s immediate predecessor, Ibrahim Jafari, also with the Shiite fundamentalist Islamic Dawa Party. Jafari recently traveled to Iraqi Kurdistan in an apparent attempt to curry favor there.
A Kurdish official told The Times last month that Jafari was now preferable to Maliki, despite the fact that Jafari had been vetoed for a second term last year after failing to win the backing of any of the main sectarian or ethnic blocs.
The prospect of Iraq’s other vice president, Shiite Adel Abdul Mehdi, being tapped for Maliki’s job also has surfaced. At least one plan for an alternative government to Maliki’s has been submitted to the U.S. Embassy by Iraqi political leaders.
“The bottom line is the country is on the brink right now,” a Sunni official in the government told The Times on condition of anonymity.
The pullout marked an end to the rocky cohabitation that began more than a year ago with the unveiling of the U.S.-brokered national unity government of Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds. After a flurry of early activity, including a reconciliation plan announced in the government’s second month, Maliki’s Cabinet lost momentum.
The government made little progress in promoting stability, as Sunni and Shiite militant groups battled for Baghdad in 2006, displacing tens of thousands of residents.
The arrival of additional U.S. troops in February of this year at the start of an offensive to end the capital’s soaring chaos has mitigated the violence in some areas, but has had little apparent effect on the political process.
Despite some efforts by the government to improve the security situation, relations between Maliki and Hashimi have seemed to only deteriorate since winter. An argument erupted between the two leaders in which Maliki said he could not work with his vice president. Days later, Tawafiq issued its ultimatum, Haidar Abadi, a lawmaker and advisor to Maliki told The Times.
Abadi said Tawafiq was trying to provoke a crisis to impose a new power-sharing arrangement, in which Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds would be equal partners in the decision-making process.
“We have to respect the interests of everybody, but the country cannot be run as a troika,” he said.
The Sunni bloc said it would continue negotiating with the majority Shiite bloc, the United Iraqi Alliance, to try to resolve the crisis and retain its 44 seats in parliament, which recessed Monday without taking action on key legislation.
“The Front will still be active in the political process and wishes to rehabilitate it and to correct its way to get rid of sectarian and ethnic divisions,” Tawafiq said in a statement.
Maliki and President Bush held a 45-minute closed videoconference in which both emphasized the progress that had been made in Iraq despite the government’s struggles, officials said. The prime minister issued his own statement in which he pledged to keep talking to Tawafiq to resolve the disputes.
The seeds of the crisis were planted in June when Maliki’s government issued a warrant for the arrest of Culture Minister Asad Kamal Hashimi, a Sunni, in connection with an assassination attempt against an independent Sunni parliament member in which his two sons were killed.
Sunnis said that the warrant was a sectarian tactic and noted that no similar warrants were being issued for Shiite officials, some of whom have been implicated in death squads that have preyed on the Sunni population.
Conversations with U.S. diplomats in Iraq have painted a bleak picture of the situation. U.S. Embassy spokesman Philip Reeker said the situation was “frustrating.”
Another U.S. official, not authorized to speak for attribution, questioned whether Iraq’s leaders could ever transcend their sectarian ways. And an additional official marveled at the “treachery” and lack of trust marking Iraqi politics, in which some advisors around Maliki accuse the Iraqi Islamic Party, the largest faction in Tawafiq, of being aligned with terrorists.
Publicly, Sunni officials pledged to carry on a dialogue with the United Iraqi Alliance.
Meanwhile, Hadi Amri, the head of the Badr Organization, a Shiite militia, said his faction was ready to pressure Maliki to make compromises.
“We as the UIA will exert pressure on the prime minister and even on the government to fulfill these issues,” Amri told Al Arabiya television.
Maliki’s Cabinet now lacks 12 of its 37 full-time ministers. Radical Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr’s bloc quit the Cabinet in the spring.
Meanwhile, a series of deadly explosions rocked Baghdad on Wednesday.
A car bomb in the predominantly Shiite Karada district killed 15 people near an ice cream shop, 50 were killed when a suicide bomber detonated a fuel tanker in the western Mansour district, and four were killed in a car bombing in Harthiya, not far from Mansour. One policeman also was killed in a bomb attack in Mansour.
In addition, 25 corpses were found around the city.
The U.S. military also reported the deaths of six soldiers in Baghdad, three from a roadside bomb blast, two from mortars or rockets and one from small-arms fire.
A British soldier was killed by a bomb in the southern city of Basra, the British military said.
Since the 2003 invasion, 3,659 U.S. troops have died in the Iraq theater, according to the website icasualties.org.
Times staff writers in Baghdad contributed to this report.