BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said on Sunday a much-anticipated summit to try to end political deadlock among the country’s leader could begin in the next two days.
Maliki, whose national unity government has been in crisis since the main Sunni Arab bloc pulled out, said he would either lure it back or find other Sunni Arabs to replace it.
“We must look for solutions for the problems we are facing. I’ve called the political leaders for a meeting to discuss the main issues in the political process,” Maliki said. “The first meeting may happen tomorrow or the day after tomorrow.”
U.S. officials have called the meeting a make-or-break moment for the government, which was formed in 2006 to reduce violence by including all groups but has been paralysed by boycotts and infighting on ethnic and sectarian lines.
The worst split occurred this month when the main Sunni Arab bloc, the Accordance Front, withdrew its six members.
“The Sunni Arabs, who along with Shi’ites and Kurds are one of the three parts of Iraqi society, will not be excluded from the government,” Maliki said.
He said he hoped the front would return. But if not, he could replace them with others — possibly tribal sheikhs who have emerged in the past year at the helm of the first Sunni Arab armed groups loyal to the government and its U.S. allies.
The sheikhs have seized control of areas from insurgents in the western desert province of Anbar, and are believed to have national political ambitions. Asked if he had agreed to give the sheikhs seats vacated by the Front, Maliki said: “There are people who have come forward and offered to be an alternative.”
He added: “We all hope that this crisis will end and the problems be solved and the ministers return to their ministries. But if, God forbid, this does not happen, then we will go to the brothers who have come forward and choose replacements.”
U.S. officials have expressed growing frustration with the stalled political process in Baghdad as Maliki’s government has failed to agree on laws aimed at reconciliation.
Nearly half of the cabinet is no longer participating in its meetings. Besides the Sunni Arabs, supporters of powerful Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr also quit the government, while the secularist bloc of former interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi is boycotting cabinet meetings.
Washington has sent 30,000 additional troops to Iraq this year and launched an offensive in and around Baghdad, in part to give Maliki’s government time for political progress. U.S. forces announced the deaths of five more soldiers on Sunday.
The political leaders at the summit are expected to include Maliki, Iraq’s Kurdish President Jalal Talabani, Sunni Arab Vice-President Tareq al-Hashemi, Kurdish regional leader Masoud Barzani and powerful Shi’ite party leader Abul Aziz al-Hakim.
All five were believed to be in Baghdad, with Maliki, Hashemi and Hakim having returned from trips abroad in the past few days and Barzani having arrived from Kurdish regional capital Arbil.
Saleem Jubouri, a senior member of parliament from the Accordance Front, told Reuters the Sunni Arab group had no plans to return to government but remained committed to dialogue.
“We can no longer describe this government as a national unity government,” he said.
In the southern Shi’ite city of Diwaniya, the flag-draped coffins of the provincial governor and police chief were carried through the streets. Khalil Jalil Hamza and Major-General Khaled Hassan were killed by a roadside bomb attack on their convoy on Saturday.
Locals said they believed the assassination was the result of a power struggle between rival armed Shi’ite groups and feared it could turn into an all-out factional war.
“This could burn down the city completely. It will not be limited to Diwaniya but would extend to all of Iraq, becoming a Shi’ite-Shi’ite war, and God knows when it would end,” said retired civil servant Akram Adel.