BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraqi lawmakers tried on Sunday to negotiate an end to the country’s worst political crisis in a year after Shi’ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki sought his Sunni vice president’s arrest on charges he ran an assassination squad.
U.S. officials, diplomats and politicians have been in a flurry of talks to calm a crisis that threat the ns to push Iraq back in the kind of sectarian strife that took the OPEC oil producer to the edge of civil war only a few years ago.
Just a week after the last U.S. troops left, the upheaval risks scuppering the country’s uneasy power-sharing government that splits posts and ministries among the Shi’ite National Alliance coalition, the mostly Sunni-backed Iraqiya bloc and Kurdish political movement.
A string of bombings across Baghdad, including a suicide bombing on a government building, killed 72 and wounded 200 more Thursday, underscoring Iraq’s still vulnerable security situation as the political crisis gripped the country.
Tuesday could be a key test for how Iraq’s turmoil develops when the cabinet is scheduled to meet and Iraqiya government ministers will decide whether they will attend or boycott the meeting. Iraqiya lawmakers have already temporarily suspended their participation in parliament, which is in recess.
“There was a delegation from the National Alliance that met Iraqiya last night,” said Haider al-Abadi, a senior Shi’ite lawmaker and Maliki ally.
“If Iraqiya wants to participate in real talks, it has to go back to parliament and the government because a parliament boycott is not acceptable,” he added.
Nearly nine years after the invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, sectarian tensions still run close to the surface in Iraq, where sustained sectarian violence between Sunni and Shi’ite communities killed thousands of people in 2006-07.
Maliki last week sought the arrest of Sunni Vice-President Tareq al-Hashemi, a key member of Iraqiya, on charges he ordered his bodyguards to carry out assassinations and bombings.
The prime minister also asked parliament to fire his Sunni deputy, Saleh al-Mutlaq, another Iraqiya leader, after he branded Maliki a dictator.
Hashemi, who says he is victim of a political vendetta, is now in semi-autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan, where he is unlikely to face immediate arrest. He has asked for his case to be transferred there. Kurdistan has its own government and armed forces.
“The political dimension of this is to get rid of all those who oppose Nuri al-Maliki, it is clear,” Hashemi told Reuters in a weekend interview.
Shi’ite political leaders say the Hashemi case is a criminal issue now with the courts and not politically motivated.
But Maliki’s moves are fanning minority Sunni fears that they are being marginalized. Since the fall of Saddam, Iraq’s Shi’ite majority has risen and Sunnis say they feel they have been pushed out of decision-making.
Iraq remains a sharply divided country with Kurds in their own semi-autonomous northern enclave, Shi’ites mainly in the southern oil-producing region, and Sunni strongholds sitting in the west along the frontier with Saudi Arabia and Jordan.
Iraqis in four cities in Sunni heartland provinces protested Friday against the Hashemi arrest warrant and against what they see as Maliki’s attempts to consolidate power at the expense of the Sunni minority.
Elsewhere at the weekend, Iraqis demonstrated against Hashemi in the southern, mainly Shi’ite city of Hilla, and urged Maliki’s government to bring him to justice.
Writing by Patrick Markey; Editing by Alistair Lyon