BAGHDAD, Iraq – Efforts to form a new national unity government stumbled Sunday as a member of an influential Shiite alliance bloc threatened to unilaterally form a new government if rival groups did not scale back their demands. Sunnis shot back with a threat to withdraw entirely from the political process.
The new warnings came as a May 22 constitutional deadline for Prime Minister-designate Nouri al-Maliki to form a government approached. Lawmakers have struggled for months to form a new national unity government they hope will cool escalating sectarian tensions between Iraq's Shiite majority and the Sunni Arab minority.
As 275-member parliament convened Sunday, Bahaa al-Araji, a lawmaker loyal to the radical anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, denounced what he said was continued U.S. meddling in the selection of ministers for the coveted interior and defense ministry posts. He set a deadline of two-days before the 130 alliance deputies act unilaterally.
"Within the past two days, the occupation forces have been interfering with certain names and certain posts," said al-Araji, whose group holds 30 seats in parliament. "There are also blocs participating in the (formation of) the government that have begun demanding more than what they are entitled to electorally."
"We have set a limit of within two days, and the (various) blocs should abide by this timeframe and act in accordance with the rules upon which we have agreed. Otherwise, we will form a government without regard to their demands," he said, singling out the Sunni Arab Accordance Front as one example.
Sunni lawmakers shot back with their own threats, with one member of the three-party Sunni Arab coalition that holds 44 seats in parliament threatening to walk out of the talks and the government.
"If we do not get what we deserve, we will end our participation in the political process," lawmaker Salman al-Jumali told The Associated Press. "Our representatives in parliament, and the officials already awarded ministerial posts will withdraw."
He said they wanted the Defense, Education, Planning and Health ministries, as well as some ministries of state.
Senior Shiite lawmaker Ridha Jawad Taqi of the powerful Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq also voiced frustration with the Sunni demands, but stressed that the Shiite alliance "hopes (the Sunnis) will continue to participate in the process."
Earlier, another member of the United Iraqi Alliance, the Fadhila Party, rebuffed a call by al-Maliki to return to the Cabinet formation negotiations, saying the political process was marred and that the incoming government be little more than an amalgam of personalities out of tune with the needs of Iraqis.
"We wish the people would understand our stance — a long-standing one for the party," said Sheik Sabah al-Saedi, a spokesman for the party which hold 15 seats. The parties "must be honest and just in evaluating the issues and reporting them to the people because history will bear witness."
Fadhila last week had said it was withdrawing from the talks, arguing that the process was being driven by self-interests, sectarianism and pressure from the United States.
The group had earlier said that it was also frustrated by a rejection of its bid for the Oil Ministry. But in Sunday's news conference, al-Sabah said they would not come back, "even if we are given the Oil Ministry now."
Fadhila's withdrawal, coupled with the threats by the Sadrists and al-Jumaili, casts further doubts that al-Maliki can meet the deadline.
Lawmakers have said that without unanimity on key posts, al-Maliki may announce a partial Cabinet and hold temporarily retain control of the interior and defense ministries until suitable candidates are agreed upon.
U.S. officials have said they would like to see independents, unaffiliated with Iraq's various violent militias, hold those two posts. This has led to some lawmakers accusing the United States of meddling.
Al-Araji said the Accordance Front is "demanding more than what they are entitled to," and said that the Iraqi List, a secular faction headed by former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, was also evaluating its continued role in the negotiations.
"There are no problems within the alliance. But there is uncertainty within the Iraqi List whether to (continue) participating and today they will reach a decision," said al-Araji.
Iraqi List delegate Mufeed al-Jazaeri of the Iraqi Communist Party, however, discounted that they are having doubts and said the bloc was seeking one of the five sovereignty ministries: oil, finance, interior, defense and foreign.
"We are optimistic, and believe that the next few days will witness an appropriate solution that will please the various sides," al-Jazaeri told reporters.
As the political maneuvering continued, al-Araji, the Sadrist, said Shiite alliance had agreed with Kurdish lawmakers that a Christian from the Kurdish bloc's ranks will hold one ministry that a Turkoman from the alliance would be awarded another portfolio. He did not specify which posts they would be.