BAGHDAD, (Reuters) – Iraq’s Sunni-backed Iraqiya bloc returned to parliament on Tuesday, ending their boycott over a political crisis within Shi’ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s government, but several of its ministers held out by snubbing his cabinet.
Iraqiya’s return to parliament came as Iraq’s blocs wrangle to end the turmoil that stoked fears over revival of broad sectarian violence days after the last American troops left the OPEC-member country in mid-December.
The crisis began after Maliki’s government sought the arrest of Sunni Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi and the removal of his Sunni Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq, prompting Iraqiya to boycott parliament and cabinet meetings.
Iraqiya on Sunday agreed to end its parliament protest and most of its lawmakers returned to the legislature on Tuesday where they were scheduled to take part in discussions of the delayed 2012 budget bill.
But Iraqiya’s ministers of finance, education, and science, would not return to cabinet, two Iraqiya members said, demanding the return of Mutlaq to government. At least three of its ministers planned to attend the cabinet meeting.
“They decided to go back to parliament because of the budget,” said Jaber al-Jaberi, lawmaker and member of parliament’s finance committee.
Ahmed al-Alwani, a senior Iraqiya lawmaker, said the bloc would continue talks over the next few days over its cabinet boycott. But talks between Maliki’s Shi’ite alliance and Iraqiya had so far not touched on Mutlaq’s return, another senior Iraqiya source said.
Maliki appears to have shored up his own position during the crisis with Iraqiya deeply splintered. Some of its ministers kept working and a group of its lawmakers threatened to break away over boycott they saw as political damaging.
Hashemi, who denies government charges his office ran a death squad, has fled to Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdistan region where his immediate arrest is unlikely. Mutlaq upset Maliki after calling him a dictator in a media interview.
The crisis has underscored the deep fractures in Iraq’s government that divides ministries up among Shi’ite, Sunni and Kurdish blocs in a unwieldy power-sharing arrangement that has stalled key legislation, including a vital oil and gas law, since its formation a year ago.
Iraq’s Shi’ite majority has ascended since the 2003 invasion that ousted Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein, and Maliki has since edged the country close to Shi’ite power Iran, worrying Baghdad’s Sunni Arab Gulf neighbours.
A former Arabic teacher who emerged as a shrewd political player, Maliki says his moves against Sunni leaders are legal. But the measures are compounding fears among Iraqi Sunnis that he is seeking to consolidate his power at their expense.
Since the crisis erupted in mid-December, violence has spiked with more than 450 people killed in attacks. The number of victims in January alone was more than double a year ago, according to government figures and a Reuters tally.
Security officials blame Sunni Islamist insurgents trying to incite sectarian tensions for recent attacks on Shi’ite targets, including a suicide bomb attack on a Shi’ite funeral in a Baghdad neighbourhood on Friday that killed 32 people.