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Iraqi government in deepest crisis

US and Iraqi officials are trying to prevent complete disintegration.

(Page 2 of 2)

Iraq's two rounds of elections in 2005 were historic in many ways. They empowered once-marginalized Shiites and Kurds, but the experience also enshrined and even codified in the new Constitution a consensus-based system that is built on a delicate division of authority along sectarian and ethnic lines.

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This was meant mainly to accommodate the embittered Sunni Arabs who were slow to embrace the political process and continue to fuel a violent insurgency that has spiraled into a bloody sectarian war.

But 14 months after Maliki, a Shiite, formed his so-called government of national unity, Iraq's quest for democracy has hit a wall. Political leaders, mainly Shiites and Sunnis, are now trading a barrage of very serious recriminations.

"The partnership experience has been dealt major blows ... we tried to maintain our good intentions and patience ... but we have been faced with arrogance, a monopoly over power, and efforts to eliminate [us] in every way," said Khalaf al-Olayan from the Iraqi Accordance Front at a press conference announcing the suspension of six cabinet members from the government.

If they pull out, it would bring to 12 the number of vacancies in Maliki's 39-member cabinet.

"We are firmly convinced after this bitter experience that this government represented by its prime minister is incapable of joining a truly patriotic project," added Mr. Olayan, surrounded by Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi and the front's other leaders.

He said the pullout would become finalized in a week unless Maliki showed willingness to fulfill a list of 12 conditions that boil down to releasing thousands of detainees held in US and Iraqi prisons without charges, ending what the front considers the indiscriminate targeting of Sunnis.

Sami al-Askari, a parliamentarian and close adviser to Maliki, said all the accusations and demands by the Sunni bloc are merely a smoke screen for one thing: "Hashemi's desire for more powers than what has been accorded to him under the Constitution."

Mr. Askari accused the Sunni bloc of operating from the get-go more like opposition than a partner. Maliki and his Shiite allies have repeatedly charged that the Sunnis want to bring down the government and reverse the current political equation with the help of regional Sunni Arab powers Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

Before the withdrawal of the Sunnis from the government, there had been efforts last week to contain the crisis, namely by resuscitating a proposal to create a coalition of so-called moderates to back the government and "isolate the extremists on both sides, Sunnis and Shiites," according to Foreign Minister Zebari.

Robert Springborg, director of the Middle East Institute at the University of London, says the heart of the problem was that no one is truly committed to a strong and unified government.

"The actors involved have their own agendas, the central government and its resources are a tool for their own aspirations ... none are committed to a government for all Iraqis," he says.

Pointing to the growing disconnect between Washington and Baghdad, Askari, Maliki's adviser, says, "Washington believes that passing the oil law will impact on reconciliation and the security situation. We beg to differ. This matters little to the armed groups that kill Iraqis every day. Their sole agenda is to reverse what we have achieved so far."