BAGHDAD (Reuters) - The political movement loyal to anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr quit Iraq’s ruling Shi’ite Alliance on Saturday, leaving Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s coalition in a precarious position in parliament.
The move further weakens the ruling coalition, which even before the defection had failed to push through laws aimed at reconciling Iraq’s warring majority Shi’ite and minority Sunni Arabs.
Maliki’s government now enjoys the support of only about half of Iraq’s 275 lawmakers, although it could survive with the support of a handful of independent lawmakers.
“The political committee has declared the withdrawal of the Sadr bloc from the (Shi’ite) alliance because there was no visible indication that the demands of Sadr’s bloc were being met,” the Sadr movement said in a statement released at a news conference in the holy Shi’ite city of Najaf.
An adviser to Maliki said the government had no immediate comment.
The decision by Sadr’s movement to quit the Shi’ite Alliance in parliament was not unexpected after the cleric pulled his six ministers from the cabinet in April.
Maliki can still count on the backing of two other Shi’ite Islamist parties and the two main Kurdish parties in parliament, and so far no party has launched any push for a no-confidence vote in his government.
Sadr was instrumental in getting Maliki, a fellow Shi’ite, appointed prime minister in May last year.
His political bloc has raised a host of grievances in the past, including Maliki’s refusal to set a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq.
Sadr, a fiery nationalist whose stronghold in the capital is Baghdad’s sprawling Sadr City, led his Mehdi Army militia in two uprisings against U.S. forces in 2004.
Maliki’s government has been paralyzed by infighting. Besides the withdrawal of ministers loyal to Sadr, six cabinet members from the main Sunni Arab bloc have also quit.
Speaking in parliament on Monday, Maliki acknowledged that the term “national unity government”, used to describe his cabinet had lost its meaning.
Hinting at a long promised overhaul of his cabinet, he said it was time for a “partnership government”, but gave no details.
The next day Sadr’s movement said it was considering withdrawing from the alliance, accusing it of failing to provide security and said political progress had been inadequate.
Criticism of Maliki’s government also came from Washington.
President George W. Bush, speaking on Thursday, said it had made limited political progress despite the breathing space offered by a “surge” of U.S. troops and better security.
In a report ordered by Congress, the White House said on Friday that Iraq’s leaders had made satisfactory progress on just nine out of 18 political and security benchmarks.
The political benchmarks, which include a crucial revenue-sharing oil law, are designed to build on the improved security and promote national reconciliation.
Iraqi lawmakers were not impressed.
“The Americans always try to pretend the responsibility for cleaning up this mess isn’t theirs and tend to shift blame onto Iraq, Iran and Syria for everything that goes wrong,” said veteran Kurdish lawmaker Mahmoud Othman.
Bush, announcing plans for a limited withdrawal of around 20,000 U.S. troops by July, said on Thursday U.S. forces had helped ensure “ordinary life is beginning to return” to Baghdad.
On Saturday evening a suicide car bomber killed 10 people and wounded 15 others in southwest Baghdad. Many were queuing outside a bakery to buy bread for the evening Ramadan meal which breaks the day-long fast during the Muslim holy month.
The bombing came on the same day that an al Qaeda led group, the Islamic State in Iraq, announced a new phase of attacks to mark the month of Ramadan, which started this week.
Additional reporting by Khaled Farhan in Najaf and Mussab Al-Khairalla in Baghdad