Iraq's main Sunni Arab political bloc said yesterday it had suspended talks to rejoin the Shiite-led government after a disagreement with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki over a Cabinet post.
Persuading the bloc to rejoin has been a main aim of US 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 Shiites and Kurds.
The breakdown in talks could undermine Washington’s efforts to prod Sunni Arab states to offer more support to the Iraqi government at a conference in Sweden today as a way of countering Shiite 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 Shiites ahead of the country’s other sectarian and ethnic groups.
But he won praise from Sunni Arab politicians after launching a crackdown on Shiite militias loyal to anti-US cleric Moqtada al-Sadr in Baghdad and the southern oil city of Basra.
Gaining the backing of Iraq’s Sunni-ruled Gulf Arab neighbors could help Maliki strengthen his government, which is enjoying some breathing space after a sharp fall in violence.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Maliki will chair the conference in Sweden today, 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 US 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.
Maliki 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 US troop withdrawal.
Sadr has called for a protest campaign to force Baghdad to abandon a proposed deal that would extend the US troop presence in Iraq beyond this year.
He said the proposed Status of Forces Agreement aimed at giving a legal basis to US troops after the Dec. 31 expiry of a UN mandate defining their current status was “against Iraqi national interests.”
“After every Friday prayers, everyone must protest and demonstrate until the agreement is canceled,” he said in a statement sent to Agence France-Presse yesterday.