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 in Iraq and is widely seen as a vital step in reconciling the country’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 this week 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.
Jibouri said the Accordance Front drew up a list of candidates for six cabinet posts to hand to the government but Maliki rejected the nomination for the Planning Ministry.
Officials from Maliki’s office were not immediately available for comment.
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 ahead of the country’s other sectarian and ethnic groups. But he won praise from Sunni Arab politicians after launching a crackdown on Shi’ite militias loyal to anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr in Baghdad and the southern oil city of Basra.
Gaining the backing of Iraq’s Sunni-ruled Gulf Arab neighbours could help Maliki strengthen his government, which is enjoying some breathing space after a sharp fall in violence. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Maliki will chair the conference in Sweden on Thursday, aimed at assessing progress in implementing a plan adopted 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 shore up Maliki’s government by forgiving debts and opening diplomatic missions.
Oil powerhouse Saudi Arabia, the region’s most influential country, wants Maliki’s government to reach out politically to Sunnis, which ruled Iraq under former President Saddam Hussein. He also faces pressure to accommodate Sadr whose Mehdi Army militia have been keeping a low profile after Iraqi security forces took over his Baghdad stronghold under a truce after weeks of fighting.
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 the negotiations between Washington and Baghdad on keeping U.S. troops in Iraq beyond 2008.
Sadr said the protests would continue nationwide until the government agreed to a referendum on the continued U.S. presence.
Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi, a Sunni Arab and a senior member of the Accordance Front, told reporters in Jordan on Tuesday the talks on the Front returning to government would be resolved soon despite disagreements.