BAGHDAD – The leader of parliament's largest Sunni Arab bloc complained Sunday that Sunni members of the Shiite-led government were marginalized and given no real authority, charging that an 11-week-old U.S.-backed security push in Baghdad was victimizing the city's Sunni residents.
A visibly angry Adnan al-Dulaimi, leader of the Iraqi Accordance Front, said he had nothing to fear from calls by Shiite lawmakers for lifting his parliamentary immunity to face questioning on alleged involvement in sectarian cleansing in Baghdad and inciting sectarian strife.
"I fear nothing and I will confront those who made these false charges," he told a news conference.
Al-Dulaimi, who is thought to be nearly 80, is one of the most outspoken critics of Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government. He recently has returned from neighboring Jordan where he underwent surgery for an unspecified ailment, according to his ally and fellow Sunni lawmaker Salim Abdullah.
"Our participation in this so-called national unity government is weak and marginalized and our ministers have no authority to serve Iraq or its people," he said.
He also complained that Shiite militias and death squads, both blamed for targeting Sunni Arabs in kidnappings and execution-style killings, have resumed their activity after staying out of sight in the initial stages of the joint U.S.-Iraqi security plan.
The number of bodies thought to belong to victims of sectarian killings has dramatically gone down in the early stages of the security push, which began Feb. 14. The numbers began rising again after hitting a low of seven, although they remain below the average of 50 per day being reported before the plan.
U.S. military officials have warned that a series of bombings that have killed hundreds of Shiites in recent weeks were an attempt by Al Qaeda-linked Sunni insurgents to provoke renewed violence by the militias thus igniting a full-scale civil war.
Al-Dulaimi, whose bloc has 44 of parliament's 275 seats, identified two areas of western Baghdad — the Sunni dominated Amil and the mixed Baiyaa, which was hit by a homicide bombing that killed at least 30 on Sunday — to be witnessing a resumption of sectarian cleansing by Shiite militiamen.
Ali al-Dabbagh, al-Maliki's chief spokesman, said the government was aware of the allegations of sectarian cleansing in Baiyaa, blaming it on what he called criminal gangs that want to create the impression of a city torn by religious strife.
"These are among the challenges the Iraqi government faces," al-Dabbagh told reporters on Sunday.
Al-Dulaimi's charges are likely to add to the pressure already put to bear by the United States and its Western and Arab allies on al-Maliki to take concrete steps toward national reconciliation and to disband Shiite militias.
"We wish the government every success with the security plan but not at the expense of the Sunnis," the Sunni leader said. He, however, added that his bloc had no intention to pull out from the political process "which we joined to help create an Iraq free of sectarian domination."
But, he added, "We call on the government to strike with an iron fist the death squads, the militias and the military commanders who attack our Sunni areas under the cover of the security plan."
Al-Maliki, who came to office a year ago, has been reluctant to move against the militias, although he appears to have recently given the U.S. military a measure of freedom to go after Shiite militiamen and death squads.
His Shiite-dominated government repeatedly states its willingness to achieve national reconciliation, but has done little, or nothing, that could persuade insurgent groups to lay down their arms and join the political process.
Al-Dabbagh sought to reassure skeptics about the government's evenhandedness, addressing on Sunday a controversy over a wall recently erected along the Sunni neighborhood of Azamiyah in northern Baghdad.
The wall has angered many Sunnis who charged the government was trying to divide Baghdad along sectarian lines. Azamiyah is located in Rusafa, the mainly Shiite part of Baghdad on the eastern bank of the Tigris river.
"The aim is not to isolate the area but to protect it," he said, explaining that the wall was built alongside a highway from which Azamiyah was frequently attacked. Similar precautions, he said, were taken throughout Rusafa to protect markets, schools and government offices.