BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s unity government plunged deeper into crisis on Monday when four secularist ministers withdrew from cabinet meetings, less than a week after the main Sunni Arab bloc quit.
A total of 17 ministers, nearly half of Maliki’s cabinet, have now quit or are boycotting meetings at a time when he is under growing pressure from frustrated U.S. officials to make demonstrable progress in reconciling Iraq’s warring sects.
“We are still in the government but we are boycotting cabinet meetings,” said Human Rights Minister Wijdan Michael, one of the four ministers from the secularist party of former interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi.
Earlier on Monday, a truck bomber in a crowded residential area killed at least 33 people in their homes.
Washington has increased pressure on Iraq’s leaders, accusing them of failing to make political progress.
On Sunday, U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates criticized Iraq’s parliament for going on recess last week without passing laws Washington considers vital for ending sectarian violence.
Four U.S. soldiers died on Monday in an explosion while on combat duty in Diyala province in Iraq, the U.S. military said.
Twelve other soldiers were wounded in the attack in a volatile region of the country where American forces have launched a major operation to combat insurgents.
The cabinet boycott means Maliki sets off on Tuesday for visits to Turkey and Iran this week, with signs he is losing control of his government back home.
In Baghdad, U.S. diplomats met held the first meeting of a new security committee with officials from arch foe Iran.
Establishing the security sub-committee has been the main achievement so far of new face-to-face contacts between Washington and Tehran — enemies who have had no diplomatic ties for almost 30 years but were driven to the negotiating table earlier this year by the threat of all-out civil war in Iraq.
“It is an established channel of communication and we will see in the future as to whether or not it is a useful channel of communication,” U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters in Washington. A U.S. embassy official called the first meeting, which last four hours, “frank and serious”.
After it ended, ambassador Ryan Crocker met his Iranian counterpart Hassan Kazemi-Qomi for two hours of further talks in the office of Iraqi security adviser Mowaffak al-Rubaie.
The United States says Iran is fomenting unrest in Iraq by supporting Shi’ite militias and supplying weapons such as amour-piercing bombs used to kill U.S. troops. Iran denies it is responsible for violence and blames the United States for unleashing sectarian strife after its 2003 invasion.
A U.S. military spokesman said on Monday Iran had trained some of the Shi’ite militants who were behind more than 70 percent of attacks on U.S. troops in Baghdad last month.
The two countries also have long-running feuds over other issues such as Iran’s nuclear program, but officials say they have not been raised in the Iraq talks.
A huge truck bomb flattened houses in a residential neighborhood in the northern Iraqi town of Tal Afar.
A doctor at the town’s main hospital told Reuters 33 people had been killed and 52 injured. Among the dead were 16 women and many children, he said. Rescue workers sifted through rubble in an attempt to find survivors from the attack.
“This indiscriminate violence, meant to reverse progress and turn Iraqis against one another, again shows the nature of this barbaric enemy,” the U.S military said in a statement.
In eastern Baghdad, six people died and nine were wounded when street cleaners were hit by a bomb hidden in a rubbish bin in the early morning. Another bomb on a minibus killed two.
Police said they had found 17 bodies around Baghdad in the past 24 hours, victims of apparent sectarian death squads.
Additional reporting by Mussab Al-Khairalla, Paul Tait and Ross Colvin in Baghdad and Parisa Hafezi in Tehran, and Washington bureau