December 21, 2011 7:08 pm

Sunni reject calls for all-party talks in Iraq


Iraq’s Sunni Muslim minority rejected a call for all-party talks on Wednesday, ignoring US pressure for dialogue to resolve a sectarian crisis that has erupted since American forces left the country.

With fears mounting that the nation of 30m might one day fragment in chaos in the absence of the US troops who toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003, Nouri al-Maliki, the Shia prime minister, warned Saddam’s fellow Sunni that they faced exclusion from power if they walked out on his ruling coalition.

The main Sunni-backed party, furious at terrorism charges levelled by the Shia-run authorities against the Sunni vice-president on the day Americans left, rejected Mr Maliki’s call for talks and vowed to try to unseat the premier in parliament, a move unlikely to succeed.

Having stuck by a decision to withdraw US forces in 2011, a return of the kind of sectarian blood-letting that killed tens of thousands of Iraqis after Saddam fell could embarrass President Barack Obama as he campaigns for re-election.

Joe Biden, US vice-president, has called on Mr Maliki and the Sunni speaker of parliament to press for urgent talks among Iraq’s leaders. But there was little sign of a thaw on Wednesday, although it remained unclear how far the rhetoric reflected a real threat to the fragile co-existence of the Sunni with the majority Shia and ethnic Kurds, both oppressed under Saddam.

Mr Maliki – calling on the Kurds to hand over Tareq al-Hashemi, the Sunni vice-president who has taken refuge in their autonomous region – said he wanted Mr Hashemi’s Sunni-backed Iraqiya block to end a boycott of parliament and of his year-old power-sharing government.

Iraqiya said it would not attend talks with Mr Maliki “since he represents the main reason for the crisis and the problem, and he is not a positive element for a solution”.

As well as Mr Hashemi, who stands accused of running death squads, the other most senior Sunni politician, Saleh al-Mutlaq, deputy prime minister, is also under fire from Mr Maliki, who has asked parliament to remove Mr Mutlaq from office.

Mr Hashemi has dismissed the charges against him as a fabrication, a denial that has credibility in Washington, where one US official said he believed the charges were unfounded.

The White House on Tuesday said it was “obviously concerned” about the arrest warrant issued for Mr Hashemi. In his calls to Baghdad, Mr Biden had “stressed the urgent need for the prime minister and the leaders of the other major blocs to meet and work through their differences together”.

Shia leaders insist there is no political motive behind the case against Mr Hashemi. But Sunni, outnumbered about two to one by Shia, see it as proof that Mr Maliki, now freed of the trammels of US occupation, is determined to tighten his personal grip on government and to marginalise the Sunni.

In a system devised under US occupation to divide power, Iraq has a Shia prime minister with Sunni and Kurd deputies, a Kurdish president with Shia and Sunni vice-presidents, and a Sunni parliamentary speaker with Shia and Kurd deputies.

Having long shunned the US-backed institutions set up when Saddam’s decades of one-man rule ended, Sunni voters propelled Iraqiya into first place in a fragmented parliament last year. But Mr Maliki was able to draw on other Shia and Kurdish groups to build a coalition, in which Iraqiya eventually took part.

Tensions among the major groups has, however, hamstrung the government, leaving key posts such as that of defence and interior minister unfilled and obstructing legislation that could clarify rules for investing and exploiting Iraq’s vast oil and gas reserves.

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