By Megan Greenwell and Saad al-Izzi
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, July 28, 2007
BAGHDAD, July 27 -- The Shiite-led Iraqi government issued a sharp response Friday to a Sunni political bloc that is threatening to pull out of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's administration, saying the group's "threatening, pressuring and blackmail" will not impede Iraq's progress.
In a four-page statement, Maliki's spokesman, Ali al-Dabbagh, dismissed each of the 11 demands made by the Iraqi Accordance Front, the country's largest Sunni political group. Dabbagh accused the Accordance Front of working for its own political gains rather than for the benefit of the Iraqi people.
"The threatening, pressuring and blackmail is useless, and delaying the work of the government, the council of representatives and the political process will not bring Iraq back to the time of dictatorship and slavery," Dabbagh wrote in the statement.
The Accordance Front announced Wednesday that its six ministers in Maliki's cabinet would quit the government permanently unless the prime minister made significant progress on its list of demands by next week. The group is seeking a greater role in security matters, the removal of militia members from Iraqi security forces and the release of thousands of detainees its members believe are unjustly imprisoned.
The group's government boycott would not affect its 44 seats in the Iraqi parliament.
The blunt statement from Maliki's government makes it unlikely that the Accordance Front will see the type of action it desires before its deadline Wednesday, leaving the future of the cabinet unclear. The government infighting coupled with the dwindling chance of legislative action on several key bills before the parliament's August recess will likely be seen as major setbacks when the top U.S. commander in Iraq issues a progress report to President Bush on Sept. 15.
In some cases, Dabbagh accused the Accordance Front of hindering progress on the issues it had listed. In response to the Sunnis' complaint about feeling alienated working under Maliki, a Shiite, Dabbagh accused them of excluding other Sunnis who were not part of the Accordance Front. Replying to their demand for Maliki to work more closely with other Arab nations, Dabbagh accused them of "challenging the Arabic identity of the prime minister." On the proposed release of detainees, he said the group is "demanding a general amnesty for terrorists."
The statement reflects the political tensions that have threatened Maliki's goal of a cohesive government. Friction between rival Shiite groups and the Sunni population's overwhelming feelings of exclusion have become a major hindrance to the government's work.
The Accordance Front ministers have not attended cabinet meetings since late June, when they pulled out to protest criminal charges against a party member, but since Wednesday they have stopped working altogether. If their decision becomes permanent, the government will be without a deputy prime minister for security, ministers of defense, culture, planning and higher education, and a minister of state for women's affairs.
Saleem Abdullah, a parliament member from the Accordance Front, said the group interpreted Dabbagh's statement as an "immediate reaction" that had not been fully thought out. "They are upset, and we understand that, but we will be patient until they respond in a reasonable way," Abdullah said.
Also Friday, a street battle between U.S. and Iraqi forces and members of a powerful Shiite militia left 17 militants dead south of Baghdad, the U.S. military said. Iraqi police said at least five Iraqi civilians were also killed, but the military reported no civilian casualties.
The clash began when U.S. and Iraqi troops entered a neighborhood in the city of Karbala to detain the suspected leader of an assassination cell that broke away from the influential Mahdi Army militia. The military did not identify the man, but Iraqi police sources said he was Razaq al-Ardhi, a Karbala resident.
Ardhi was captured without incident, the military said, but neighbors began to fire weapons from several locations nearby. The troops fired back, killing five people, then attacked from an aircraft overhead, killing an additional 12 fighters, according to a military statement. The military said that no civilians were in the area at the time and that no troops were injured.
A U.S. soldier was killed Thursday when a roadside bomb exploded near his vehicle in Diyala province east of Baghdad, the military said.
Special correspondent Dalya Hassan contributed to this report.