Iraq leaders call for solution to political crisis

April 28, 2012 - 12:06 PM
Mideast Iraq

Kurdish president Massoud Barzani, center, welcomes Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr upon his arrival in Irbil, a city in the Kurdish controlled north 217 miles (350 kilometers) north of Baghdad, Iraq, Thursday, April 26, 2012. A hardline Shiite cleric is meeting with the president of Iraq's Kurdish region to try to end a political crisis that has deadlocked the nation's government. Anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr offered plans Thursday to resolve the impasse through political inclusiveness.(AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed)

BAGHDAD (AP) — Leaders from nearly all of Iraq's top political blocs called Saturday for a solution to a crisis pitting the Shiite-led government against Sunnis and Kurds, saying the dispute threatens the country's national interests.

The statement came after three days of meetings that brought together senior Sunni, Kurdish and even Shiite politicians disgruntled with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki — who was not represented at the talks in Irbil, the capital of Iraq's northern Kurdish region. While no one at the mini-summit demanded that al-Maliki step down, the fact that the discussions included key figures from across Iraq's political spectrum underscored the growing impatience with the Shiite prime minister.

Al-Maliki's critics accuse him of consolidating power and sidelining both Sunnis and Kurds, touching off a political impasse that has brought government work to a near standstill and threatens to break up Iraq.

A statement issued after the meeting in Irbil said the leaders "stressed the need for finding ways to dismantle the crisis, the continuation of which puts the supreme national interests in danger." They also discussed "ways to strengthen the democratic process."

The talks were hosted by Massoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdish autonomous region, and included Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, as well as former prime minister Ayad Allawi and hard-line cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, both Shiites. Parliament speaker Osama al-Nujaifi, a Sunni, also took part.

The broad front represented at the meeting ratcheted up the pressure on al-Maliki to engage his political foes and cede to some of their demands.

It was only with the support of Barzani and al-Sadr that al-Maliki kept his job after his party fell far short of winning the most seats in the 2010 parliamentary elections. Allawi's Iraqiya alliance, which is backed by the Sunni minority, won the most seats in the vote, but al-Maliki cobbled together a political coalition with the Kurds and al-Sadr's followers, winning the right to head the government.

The statement from the meeting also called for better services for Iraqis in what likely was a promise made at al-Sadr's request. The backbone of the cleric's followers are poor, and have been at the forefront of nationwide demands for more jobs and better public utilities like electricity and water — both of which experience deep shortages during Iraq's searing summers.

Al-Maliki did not mention the government crisis in a speech Saturday to his Dawa Party, and government spokesmen did not respond to calls seeking comment about the Irbil meeting.

The monthslong political impasse began when the government issued terrorism charges against the nation's highest-ranking Sunni, Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, as the final U.S. troops left Iraq in December. Sunni politicians briefly boycotted the government.

At the same time, Barzani butted heads with al-Maliki over a deal for Exxon Mobil Corp. to drill for oil in the Kurdish region without Baghdad's oversight. Barzani threatened this week to let Kurds vote to secede from Iraq if the government crisis has not been resolved by September regional elections.

Also Saturday, five people were killed in Baghdad in a tribal dispute linked to a wedding.

Police said the couple got married Friday without permission from the bride's family, prompting her cousins to attack the groom's house at dawn Saturday. The couple escaped unharmed, but three members of the groom's family and two of the bride's were killed in the fighting.

Laws in some Iraqi tribes require relatives' permission before a woman can marry. If any cousins reject the suitor, the woman must refuse the proposal.

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Associated Press writers Bushra Juhi in Baghdad and an AP employee in Irbil, Iraq, contributed to this report.