(photo credit: AP)
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki faced a widening revolt within his divided government as two senior Sunni politicians joined prominent Shi'ite lawmakers and Cabinet members in criticizing his policies.
Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi said he wanted to see al-Maliki's government gone and another "understanding" for a new coalition put in place with guarantees that ensure collective decision making.
"There is a clear deterioration in security and everything is moving in the wrong direction," the Sunni leader told The Associated Press. "This situation must be redressed as soon as possible. If they continue, the country will plunge into civil war."
Al-Maliki's No. 2, Deputy Prime Minister Salam Zikam Ali al-Zubaie, also a Sunni, argued that the president's government failed to curb the spread of sectarian politics.
A boycott by 30 lawmakers and five Cabinet ministers loyal to anti-American Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr was in protest of al-Maliki's meeting with US President George W. Bush in Jordan on Thursday. The Sadrists said the meeting amounted to an affront to the Iraqi people.
Al-Maliki appealed to the Sadrists to end their boycott and admonished them for an action that he said violated the commitment expected from partners in his 6-month-old coalition government.
"I hope they reconsider their decision because it doesn't constitute a positive development in the political process," al-Maliki said at a news conference on his return to Baghdad. "Political partnership means commitment."
Meanwhile, in an interview with ABC, al-Maliki confidently claimed that his forces would be ready to take over responsibility for security in Iraq by June, a timeline that is about 12 months shorter than what has been floated by top US military commanders.
"We and the President (Bush) agreed to keep the same (US) forces on the ground but to train more Iraqi forces," he said, according to excerpts from the interview to be aired later Thursday.
"We did not talk about any timetables and agenda for the withdrawal but now we are focusing on training Iraqi forces and then we will talk about reducing the number of multinationals," he said, alluding to the US-led, 150,000-strong multinational force in Iraq.
He said he had no objection to any timetable for a US troop withdrawal, but cautioned that such action should be put off until Iraqi forces were ready to stand on their own.
On Thursday, Bush said he would speed a turnover of security responsibility to Iraqi forces and assured al-Maliki that Washington was not looking for a "graceful exit" from a war well into its fourth year.
"So, we'll be in Iraq until the job is complete," Bush said.
Saleh al-Ojeili, a Sadrist legislator, said only a timetable for the withdrawal of foreign troops from Iraq would persuade him and fellow Sadrists to resume participation in the parliament and government.
"It is the minimum we can ask for," al-Ojeili said.
A special commission on US policy in Iraq will urge a pullback of some US troops but will not recommend a timetable for withdrawing all US forces, an official familiar with the panel's deliberations said Thursday.
The Iraq Study Group's report, to be released next Wednesday, will press for a greater shift in responsibility for the country's security from American to Iraqi forces. It will also indicate that the presence of US troops is part of the problem in Iraq, said the official, who requested anonymity because the panel's recommendations have not been made public.
Bush has steadfastly refused to announce a timeline for a troop pullout, saying that such a move would play into the hands of insurgents.
In violence on Thursday, the US military reported the deaths of two soldiers, and Iraqi officials said 47 people had been killed, including 37 bodies found dumped in various regions of the country.
Meanwhile, al-Qaida in Iraq on Thursday denounced Iraqi Sunni politicians who met the past week with Jordan's King Abdullah II, calling them and the monarch "traitors."
The statement, posted on an Islamic militant Web site, made no mention of the summit between al-Maliki and Bush. Instead, al-Qaida in Iraq - the country's most feared Sunni Muslim militant group - lashed out at a string of Iraqi Sunni Arab politicians who held talks with Abdullah ahead of the summit.