Sunni-backed coalition accuses Iraqi premier of sectarianism, suspends power-sharing talks

BAGHDAD (AP) — A Sunni-backed coalition that won the most seats in Iraq's parliamentary election said Monday it would cease power-sharing talks with the nation's incumbent Shiite prime minister, accusing him of turning political bickering into a sectarian issue.

The breakdown is certain to extend a five-month political stalemate since the voting, leaving the country without a new government at a critical time — American troops are departing and violence against Iraqi security forces is rising.

A spokeswoman said the Iraqiya political alliance would break off government formation talks with the rival State of Law coalition until its leader, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, apologizes for a TV interview in which he portrayed the group as only representing the interests of Iraq's Sunni minority.

Iraqiya's leader, former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, is a Shiite, but the coalition narrowly won the most seats in the March 7 election thanks to strong Sunni support.

"We reject such remarks because our list represents national rather than sectarian interests," Maysoun al-Damlouji told The Associated Press. "We demand al-Maliki apologize for his remarks and we will not start any new negotiations ... if (he) continues to consider our list a sectarian one."

A lawmaker with al-Maliki's coalition defended the prime minister's description of Iraqiya as a Sunni bloc.

"It is not wrong to describe or name things as they are," said Abdul-Hadi al-Hassani. "We respect all sectarian groups in Iraq. It is not a secret that Sunnis are the majority in Iraqiya."

"We hope that Iraqiya will not use these remarks to avoid the task of government formation," al-Hassani said.

In another sign of frustration over the lack of political compromise five months after the election, four activist groups said they had filed a lawsuit against acting parliament Speaker Fouad Massoum accusing him of delaying deadlines that would force Allawi and al-Maliki to compromise.

Although Iraqiya edged State of Law by 91 seats to 89, both parties fell far short of the 163-seat majority needed to control parliament and choose leaders. Both Allawi and al-Maliki claim the right to get the first crack at forming a new government.

The lawsuit accuses Massoum of delaying deadlines for key steps the parliament is required to make in forming a new government, such as choosing a new president and speaker. That has resulted in a political stalemate, and the lawsuit alleges the constitution was violated.

Massoum acknowledged the constitution has been violated, but defended his decision to use a parliamentary maneuver to delay deadlines and give the bickering parties more time to hammer out a power-sharing agreement. He said neither he nor his lawyer had seen a copy of the lawsuit and could not comment on its specifics.

The lawsuit was filed Aug. 9 with Iraq's Federal Supreme Court by groups that include women's and workers' rights organizations.

While the politicians bargain for positions behind the scenes, suspected Sunni insurgents are intensifying attacks around the country.

A car bomb exploded beside a bus Monday north of Baghdad, killing four Iranian pilgrims and an Iraqi, officials said.

The bus was hit just outside the town of Muqdadiyah while heading toward the capital, Baghdad, 60 miles (90 kilometers) away. Nine other Iranians on the bus were injured.

There is a steady flow of Iranian pilgrims into Iraq to visit its hallowed Shiite shrines and they are often targeted by Sunni militants, especially in former insurgent strongholds like Diyala province, where the attack took place.

Also Monday, a leader of a Sunni militia that fights al-Qaida was shot and killed in Fallujah, police said. Insurgents have increasingly targeted the militiamen and other Iraqi security personnel as the U.S. military prepares to send home all but 50,000 troops by the end of the month.

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Associated Press Writer Barbara Surk contributed to this report.