By BARBARA SURK, Associated Press
BAGHDAD (AP) — Ministers from Iraq's Sunni-backed bloc ended their boycott of the Cabinet on Tuesday, a move that could restore some stability to the war-ravaged nation that has been mired in a security and political crisis since the U.S. completed its military withdrawal from the country.
The government of Shiite Prime Minister set off the political crisis in December by issuing an arrest warrant against the country's top Sunni official, Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi, charging him with running death squads.
Leaders of al-Hashemi's Sunni-backed Iraqiya bloc accused the prime minister of sectarian bias and of trying to push the bloc out of the government to consolidate his own grip on power.
In protest, Iraqiya launched a boycott of the parliament and Cabinet sessions that brought government work to a standstill.
But seeking to defuse the crisis, Iraqiya lawmakers last week ended the boycott of the parliament amid Shiite rivals' accusations that their absence was fueling instability and depriving the bloc's supporters from the Sunni minority of participating in important decisions, such as the nation's $100 billion budget that parliament has yet to approve.
And on Tuesday, Iraqiya spokeswoman Maysoun al-Damlouji said Sunni-backed bloc's ministers attended a session of al-Maliki's Cabinet. She said the decision is Iraqiya's "second good will gesture" in efforts to ease sectarian tensions.
Government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh confirmed Iraqiya ministers' presence at Tuesday's Cabinet meeting.
Al-Hashemi has denied the charges against him. He escaped to the autonomous Kurdish area, out of reach of authorities in Baghdad. He refuses to return to the capital for trial, saying he does not feel safe in Baghdad and is unlikely to receive a fair trial. He and other Sunni officials allege the judiciary is not independent of al-Maliki's government.
On Monday, Iraqiya parliamentarian Haidar al-Mulla said he was informed that prosecutors were seeking to charge him for insulting the country's judiciary by publicly questioning its independence.
Al-Mulla, who is a Shiite member of the overwhelmingly Sunni Iraqiya, said the efforts to strip him of parliamentary immunity to clear the way for his prosecution are part of a "vicious campaign against Iraqiya" that underlines the authorities' resolve to squelch any criticism of al-Maliki's five-year rule.
The sectarian-based politician battles have been accompanied with a surge in attacks since the American soldiers left in December. More than 200 people were killed last month, raising fears of a reprise of a conflict five years ago that was close to all-out civil war.
Iraq's al-Qaida claimed responsibility for most bombings last month, including the two deadliest attacks on Shiites since the U.S. troops left.
A statement by al-Qaida's Islamic State of Iraq on Monday said "Sunni heroes of heroes" infiltrated Shiite processions with explosive vests, killing scores of "nonbelievers and Iranian agents" during Arbaeen commemorations, the most sacred times for Shiite Muslims.
The bloodiest of the Arbaeen attacks that al-Qaida claimed responsibility for was the Jan. 5 wave of apparently coordinated bombings in Baghdad and outside the southern city of Nasiriyah that killed 78 people. The second came nine days later in a blast near the southern city of Basra. At least 53 pilgrims were killed.
Associated Press writer Sameer N. Yacoub in Baghdad contributed to this report.