BAGHDAD Iraq's main Sunni Arab bloc said on Friday it was suspending its participation in cabinet because of legal steps being taken against one of its ministers, deepening the sectarian gulf between the country's politicians.
The Sunni Accordance Front has six cabinet posts and the move is a blow to Shi'ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki at a time when he is under U.S. pressure to push through laws aimed at reconciling majority Shi'ites and minority Sunni Arabs.
The bloc also suspended its participation in parliament a week ago over the ousting of speaker Mahmoud al-Mashhadani, one of its members. The latest move effectively removes Sunni Arabs from the cabinet and parliament, leaving Shi'ites and Kurds.
"We have suspended our membership in the cabinet until the government puts an end to procedures being taken against Culture Minister Asaad Kamal Hashemi," the head of the bloc, Adnan al-Dulaimi, told Reuters by telephone from Amman.
"We have told our six ministers not to attend cabinet meetings until the government halts these legal steps."
Among the bloc's post are defense, planning and education.
Ali al-Dabbagh, the spokesman for the Shi'ite-led government, earlier this week told Al-Arabiya television that an arrest warrant had been issued for Hashemi in relation to a murder investigation.
However, there has been some confusion about the warrant. Police and court officials have not been able to confirm such a warrant has been issued for Hashemi.
Nevertheless, publicity surrounding the matter has infuriated many Sunni politicians.
The legal case concerns the killing of the two sons of another Sunni politician in 2005.
Dulaimi said Hashemi was innocent of any wrongdoing. Hashemi has gone into hiding. Police raided his house this week, detaining a number of bodyguards. They were later released.
Alaa Meki, a senior member of the moderate Iraqi Islamic Party, which belongs to the Accordance Front, said the bloc wanted an independent investigation into the accusations.
"These are fabricated accusations. We want to form a neutral committee to find out the details of this case," Meki told Reuters, adding Hashemi was ready to appear before such a body.
He told Al-Arabiya that Sunni Arabs were being "isolated, marginalized".
Washington has been urging Iraq for months to pass major laws aimed at drawing Sunni Arabs more firmly into the political process. None of the drafts have reached parliament.
The laws deal with sharing revenues from Iraq's huge oil reserves more equitably, holding provincial elections and amending a ban on former members of Saddam Hussein's Baath party serving in the government and military.
In fresh violence, a roadside bomb killed five U.S. soldiers on patrol in Baghdad, the U.S. military said on Friday, bringing this month's death toll for American forces in Iraq to 100.
The deaths, on Thursday in an apparently coordinated ambush that included small arms fire and rocket-propelled grenade attacks, underscore the cost to soldiers fighting a war that is increasingly unpopular in the United States.
June's death toll is lower than the 126 U.S. soldiers who died in May. But after 104 were killed in April, it is now the bloodiest quarter for U.S. forces since the U.S.-led invasion to topple Saddam in 2003.
U.S. President George W. Bush pleaded for patience for his Iraq strategy on Thursday as he scrambled to prevent further defections by fellow Republicans skeptical of his war strategy.
Bush has sent 28,000 extra troops mainly to Baghdad to improve security and win breathing space for Maliki to win a political accommodation with disaffected Sunni Arabs.