BAGHDAD, Iraq – Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki lashed out at lawmakers in a closed-door session of parliament Sunday, ordering them to stop criticizing his government and instead declare their loyalty to a unified Iraq — not their religious sects or political parties, two members of parliament told The Associated Press.
Al-Maliki, who also said a government reshuffle was in the works, was responding to questions by lawmakers during the more-than one-hour closed session.
In a statement afterward, al-Maliki's office said he used the meeting to outline the political and security situation in the country and plans for bring stability to the country.
It said al-Maliki "called for a comprehensive Cabinet shake up suitable with the current period."
The statement said al-Maliki told legislators that all politicians should "be responsible and contribute to improving security and pushing forward with reconciliation."
Shiite legislator Bassem al-Sharif quoted al-Maliki as telling lawmakers:
"We need a major government reshuffle, and we will not allow any candidate to be loyal to his party. I will choose according to qualifications. I will reject any incompetent candidate," al-Maliki said according to al-Sharif.
Al-Maliki also told the lawmakers to stop squabbling and "solve your problems among yourselves," al-Sharif said. "Let your loyalty be to Iraq. Help the government."
The prime minister was responding in part to public charges by lawmakers that the government was complicit in the killing of members of the Sunni minority, even as some Shiites in the government claimed al-Maliki was being unduly harsh in dealing with Shiite militia members.
"Your speeches are affecting the security situation," al-Maliki said, according to al-Sharif.
Dhafer al-Ani, of the Sunni Iraqi Accordance Front, told The Associated Press later that "we believe that we are not partners. Al-Maliki's statements in parliament today were disappointing because they were sidelining [Sunnis] and included threats."
He said that his organization, which holds 44 seats in the 275-member parliament, is reviewing its participation — a hint that members might pullout of the political process.
Al-Ani said al-Maliki blamed raging violence on Sunni extremists and followers of former president Saddam Hussein and failed to accept blame for Shiite militias.
Al-Sharif quoted al-Maliki as saying that "I will not allow the army and police to be loyal to political groups. We will increase the number of troops and I will not allow you to make it a political matter," al-Maliki said.
Earlier this month, the prime minister ordered a 12,000-man increase in the country's army to about 124,000 under its current structure.
The United States is pressuring al-Maliki to disband Shiite militias, but he countered in the closed session that both Sunnis and Shiites had militias.
"You all have militias. I will not accept a government made up of militiamen. We cannot be a state in the presence of militias," he was quoted as saying.
On Saturday, al-Maliki told editors of local newspapers that Syria, which the U.S. and his government accuse of allowing foreign fighters to cross into Iraq, wants to start afresh with Iraq.
"We have the same desire," al-Maliki said. "If they take one step toward us, we would respond by taking five steps toward them."
Foreign Ministry Undersecretary Labib Abbawi said Sunday that an official invitation has been sent to Syria's Foreign Minister Walid Moallem and he accepted. No date for a visit was set.