BAGHDAD Friction between Iraq's Sunni Arab, Shi'ite and Kurdish leaders has erupted into a public spat over who is to blame for the failure so far to enact any of the laws that Washington hopes will reconcile Iraqis.
While U.S. officials have pressured Shi'ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's government -- a brittle coalition of Shi'ites, Kurds and Sunni Arabs -- to move faster, the latest bout of finger-pointing highlights the political gridlock.
Government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh on Friday accused the biggest Sunni political bloc, the Accordance Front, of blackmail and obstruction, while President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, suggested the Front harbored insurgent sympathizers.
The Front sparked the war of words on Wednesday when it pulled its ministers out of Maliki's government and gave him a week to meet a series of demands, including a greater say in security matters.
The Front had just ended a month-long boycott of parliament, while continuing to ban its ministers from attending cabinet meetings. On Wednesday it went a step further, telling them to stop going to work altogether.
The political turmoil, fuelled by a separate parliament boycott by lawmakers loyal to Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, has hampered efforts to pass legislation that Washington sees as key to stabilizing Iraq and accommodating disaffected Sunnis.
The Sadrist lawmakers have since returned to parliament.
Only one draft law, which concerns control over Iraq's huge oil reserves, has been submitted to parliament, but the 275-seat legislature has yet to debate it.
"Crippling the government, parliament and the political process will not bring Iraq back to the time of dictatorship and slavery," Dabbagh said on Friday, referring to Saddam Hussein's rule in which the Sunni minority oppressed majority Shi'ites and Kurds.
Talabani, who tries to stay above party politics, said in a separate televised interview that while the Sunni bloc had some legitimate grievances, their threat to quit the government undermined efforts to foster national reconciliation.
He also said some members of the bloc "sympathized with terrorists or supported them", a serious charge in a country riven by sectarian tensions that have killed tens of thousands.
Factions within the Sunni bloc have often been accused of links to Sunni insurgent groups fighting to oust U.S. troops and topple the Shi'ite-led government. For their part, Sunni members of the government say Maliki has ignored and marginalized them.
The bloc counter-attacked on Saturday, lambasting Dabbagh for his "miserable" remarks.
Analysts were always doubtful the government would make enough political progress by September, when the top U.S. military commander and the U.S. ambassador are due to report to Congress on U.S. President George W. Bush's new Iraq strategy.
Political parties, deeply divided in the midst of a bitter sectarian conflict, are reluctant to compromise, and critics say Washington has done too little to force them to negotiate.
The country's top five Kurdish, Sunni Arab and Shi'ite leaders are due to hold a summit, possibly next week, in an attempt to find common ground and end the political crisis.
The meeting will bring together Talabani, Maliki, Sunni Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi, Masoud Barzani, president of Iraq's largely autonomous Kurdistan region, and an aide to ailing Shi'ite leader Abdul Aziz al-Hakim.
(Additional reporting by Aws Qusay in Baghdad)