Iraq's Sunni-backed lawmakers return to parliament
BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraq's parliament reconvened Tuesday after Sunni-backed lawmakers ended their boycott to protest alleged persecution of Sunni officials, a development that could restore some stability in the war-ravaged country.
Last month the Sunni-backed Iraqiya bloc banned lawmakers and government ministers from parliament and Cabinet sessions after the Shiite-led government issued an arrest warrant against the Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi on terrorism charges.
The boycott brought government work to a standstill and plunged the country into a political crisis just days after the U.S. completed its military withdrawal in mid-December. The sectarian political fight has been accompanied by a surge in violence, killing more than 200 people this month and raising fears of a civil war.
Iraqiya leaders lifted the parliament ban on Sunday, and most of the bloc's 76 lawmakers attended Tuesday's session. It was devoted to discussing the nation's nearly $100 billion budget, according to Nahida al-Dayini, an Iraqiya lawmaker.
"We hope that this will be a good start to solve the problems in Iraq," said Iraqiya lawmaker Zuhair al-Araji before the parliament session began.
The alliance's nine ministers in the government led by Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki did not attend the weekly Cabinet meeting Tuesday.
Iraqiya leaders accuse al-Maliki of trying to marginalize the Sunni minority and cement his grip on power.
Al-Maliki's security forces have launched a widespread crackdown against Sunnis, detaining hundreds for alleged ties to the deposed Baath Party of Saddam Hussein.
Al-Hashemi, the Sunni vice president, denied the charges of running death squads and fled to the autonomous Kurdish region in Iraq, out of reach of authorities in Baghdad. He is refusing to return for trial in Baghdad.
The Iraqi Interior Ministry said 16 of al-Hashemi's guards detained last month admitted during questioning that they had participated in assassination plots that targeted police officers and judges.
The testimony will be added to the al-Hashemi case, the ministry said in a statement posted on its website late Monday.
The twin crises have raised fears of a reprise of a conflict five years ago, when heavily armed Shiite and Sunni militias battled each other and brought the nation to the brink of civil war.
On Monday evening, three Iraqi soldiers were killed when a parked car bomb exploded near a military patrol in Baqouba, a former al-Qaida stronghold, 35 miles (60 kilometers) northeast of Baghdad. Three people, including a soldier, were wounded in the bombing, said Maj. Ghalib al-Karkhi, a police spokesman in Diyala province.
Associated Press writer Barbara Surk contributed to this report.