Iraq's Sunni Muslim minority rejected a call for all-party talks on Wednesday, ignoring U.S. pressure for dialogue to resolve a sectarian crisis that has erupted since American forces left the country this week.
With fears mounting that the nation of 30 million might one day fragment in chaos in the absence of the U.S. troops who toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003, Shi'ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki warned Saddam's fellow Sunnis 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 Shi'ite-run authorities against Iraq's Sunni vice president on the day Americans left, rejected Maliki's call for all-party talks in the coming days and vowed to try and unseat the prime minister in parliament, a move unlikely to succeed.
Having stuck by a decision to withdraw U.S. 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.
Vice President Joe Biden called Maliki and the Sunni speaker of parliament on Tuesday 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 coexistence of Sunnis with the majority Shi'ites and ethnic Kurds, both oppressed under Saddam.
Maliki, calling on the Kurds to hand over Sunni Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi who has taken refuge in their autonomous region, said he wanted Hashemi's Sunni-backed Iraqiya block to end a boycott of parliament and of his year-old power-sharing government.
But, he warned, If they insist, they are free to do so and they can withdraw permanently from the state and all its institutions.
SUNNIS SLAM MALIKI
Iraqiya said it would not attend talks with 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 Hashemi, who stands accused of running death squads based on televised confessions by men claiming to be his bodyguards, the other most senior Sunni politician, deputy prime minister Saleh al-Mutlaq, is also under fire from Maliki, who has asked parliament to remove Mutlaq from office.
Hashemi has dismissed the charges against him as a fabrication, a denial that has credibility in Washington, where one U.S. official said he believes the charges were unfounded.
The White House on Tuesday said it was obviously concerned about the arrest warrant issued for Hashemi. In his calls to Baghdad, 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.
Shi'ite leaders insist there is no political motive behind the case against Hashemi. But Sunnis, outnumbered about two to one by Shi'ites, see it as proof that Maliki, now freed of the trammels of U.S. occupation, is determined to tighten his personal grip on government and to marginalise the Sunnis.
In a system devised under U.S. occupation to divide power, Iraq has a Shi'ite prime minister with Sunni and Kurd deputies, a Kurdish president with Shi'ite and Sunni vice presidents, and a Sunni parliament speaker with Shi'ite and Kurd deputies.
Having long shunned the U.S.-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 Maliki was able to draw on other Shi'ite 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.
Iraq sits astride a Sunni-Shi'ite faultline running through the Middle East, fuelling mutual accusations of foreign influence, whether from Shi'ite Iran to the north or from the Sunni-ruled Arab states to the south.
In an interview with Reuters, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari, an ethnic Kurd, said that the country's domestic schisms risked inviting more interference from outside:
As long as your internal front is fragmented and not united ... others who want to interfere will be encouraged, he said. That's why it is very important to deal with this crisis as soon as possible.
(Additional reporting by Serena Chaudry in Baghdad; Writing by Alastair Macdonald)