BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq’s main Sunni Arab political bloc said on Wednesday it had suspended talks to rejoin the Shi’ite-led government after a disagreement with Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki over a cabinet post.
Persuading the bloc to rejoin has been a main aim of U.S. policy and is widely regarded as a vital step in reconciling Iraq’s factions after years of conflict. Sunni Arabs have little voice in a cabinet dominated by Shi’ites and Kurds.
The breakdown in talks could undermine Washington’s efforts to prod Sunni Arab states to offer more support to Iraq’s government at a conference in Sweden on Thursday as a way of countering Shi’ite Iran’s growing influence in Iraq.
“We have suspended negotiations with the government and pulled out our candidates,” said Salim al-Jibouri, spokesman for the Accordance Front. He said the decision was taken after Maliki objected to a candidate for a cabinet position.
The Accordance Front pulled out of Maliki’s national unity government in August, demanding the release of mainly Sunni Arab detainees in Iraq’s jails and calling for a greater say in security matters.
Ali al-Adeeb, a member of parliament and senior member of Maliki’s Dawa party, played down the suspension of talks.
“I don’t think that this will lead to the total withdrawal of the Accordance Front from the government,” he told Reuters.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said she understood that discussions were continuing.
“I don’t think that those reports are necessarily accurate. It is our understanding that the discussions continue about rejoining.
“I think there is a lot of politics going on, which is not unknown in democratic states,” said Rice on the eve of the international conference on Iraq’s development in Stockholm.
Since becoming prime minister in May 2006, Maliki has faced constant criticism from Iraq’s minority Sunni Arab community that he has promoted the interests of the majority Shi’ites over the country’s other sectarian and ethnic groups.
He is under pressure to hold together several sides in Iraq’s complex conflict — sectarian violence, a Sunni insurgency, al Qaeda and tens of thousands of impoverished Shi’ite gunmen loyal to anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
U.S. forces said they killed 10 people on Wednesday who they accused of planting roadside bombs or of carrying out other “militant activities” in the New Baghdad area of the capital, a stronghold of Sadr’s Mehdi Army militia.
The U.S. military said the 10 were members of “special groups”, military jargon for rogue units of the Mehdi Army accused of receiving funds and training from Iran.
Maliki won praise from Iraq’s Sunni Arab politicians after launching a crackdown on Shi’ite militias claiming allegiance to Sadr in Baghdad and the southern city of Basra in late March.
The Mehdi Army has been keeping a low profile since Iraqi security forces took over Sadr’s Baghdad bastion, Sadr City, under a truce agreement last week.
A Mehdi Army leader in the New Baghdad district, Abu Ali, said the agreement only committed the militia not to fight Iraqi security forces who entered militia strongholds, not U.S. soldiers. He said the militia would defend itself against U.S. forces who entered the district.
The Iraqi Army has seized a large arsenal of weapons in Sadr City including 88 roadside bombs, 201 rocket-propelled grenades, 216 AK-47 assault rifles, 10 sniper rifles, 144 mortar rounds and 107 anti-tank mines, the U.S. military said on Wednesday.
Sadr pulled his bloc out of Maliki’s government last year in protest at his refusal to negotiate a timetable for a U.S. troop withdrawal. On Tuesday, he called for a mass protest against negotiations between Washington and Baghdad on keeping U.S. troops in Iraq beyond 2008.
Iraq plans to hold a national census next year, paving the way for parliamentary polls expected by the end of 2009, Planning Minister Ali Baban told Reuters in an interview.
A lack of census data has fed rancorous disputes over the size of Iraq’s ethnic and religious groups. This has affected allocations of its oil wealth to different regions and delayed the passage of this year’s $48 billion budget.
In a sign of the high cost of U.S. military forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Pentagon said it plans to shift $9.7 billion of its overall budget to pay for war operations but warned it will run out of money if the U.S. Congress does not approve more funding by mid-July.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Maliki will chair the conference in Sweden on Thursday, aimed at assessing progress in implementing what was agreed at a meeting in Egypt last year to help Iraq rebuild after five years of war.
The United States has been pressing Sunni Arab governments to forgive debts and open diplomatic missions.
A delegation from Iraq’s western Anbar province, led by Governor Mamoon al-Alwani, left for the United States on Wednesday for talks with U.S. government officials on handing over security for the province to Iraqi forces, said Jamal al-Mashadani, spokesman for the provincial government.
Additional reporting by Khalid al-Ansary, Aseel Kami and Ahmed Rasheed and Kristin Roberts in Washington, Writing by Michael Georgy, Tim Cocks and Adrian Croft; Editing by Charles Dick