BAGHDAD – At least four more ministers announced a boycott of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government Monday, deepening the crisis sparked less than a week ago by the withdrawal of six Sunni Muslim Cabinet members.
Almost half of al-Maliki’s Cabinet – 17 ministers – have withdrawn or boycotted, citing the prime minister’s unwillingness to include them in major decisions or make concessions to meet demands to curb Shiite Muslim militias and release Sunni prisoners held without charges.
Meanwhile, five U.S. soldiers were killed Monday: four in an explosion in Diyala Province and another when an armor-penetrating device exploded in western Baghdad. Another soldier was killed Sunday in eastern Baghdad, the U.S. military said.
The deaths brought to 3,676 the number of American troops killed since the March 2003 invasion, according to the Web site icasualties.org, which tracks casualties in the conflict.
The ministers who announced the walkout are secular Sunnis from the Iraqi National List slate, the fourth-largest in Parliament. The slate is led by former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite and former exile who has opposed al-Maliki’s government. They announced the boycott after skipping a ministers’ meeting Monday morning. The Cabinet still had 21 of 37 members, giving it a quorum to meet and vote. The Iraqi National List ministers are protesting al-Maliki’s “policy of marginalization,” according to Saleem Abdullah Juboori, a member of Parliament with the Sunni National Accordance Front, or Tawafiq, which withdrew its ministers Wednesday.
Tawafiq cited the same unmet demands noted in Monday’s boycott.
The bloc loyal to Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr withdrew its six ministers from the Cabinet in April after leaders failed to present a timetable for U.S. forces’ withdrawal from Iraq.
Juboori said the next few weeks will be al-Maliki’s “last chance to show goodwill” and negotiate with the absent ministers. He is expected to attend a leadership summit soon that will include national leaders and heads of political blocs.
If al-Maliki fails to reach out to the marginalized ministers, Juboori said, Tawafiq is in talks with Iraqiya, Kurdish and Shiite politicians from al-Maliki’s own bloc to bring a vote of no confidence against him.
But al-Maliki does not plan to negotiate with ministers who have left the Cabinet, spokesman Basam Ridha said. Instead, al-Maliki was talking Monday with the Iraqi National Accord about replacing the absent ministers through special elections.
“If they do not wish to serve, no problem,” Ridha said. “We will find somebody else to replace them. He’s got quite a few resumes from across the country.”
15 children killed
At least 35 people were killed, including 15 children, when a suicide bomber blew up an explosives-laden truck Monday on the eastern outskirts of the northern city of Tall Afar, 240 miles northwest of Baghdad, officials said.
The force of the explosion collapsed numerous homes in the densely populated area that is home to Shiites and Turkmen, said Tall Afar mayor Nejim Abdalla Jubouri. He estimated the truck was packed with about 2 tons of explosives, concealed by gravel.
No group had claimed responsibility for the bombing late Monday, but Jubouri said he suspects insurgents targeted Shiites. He said the explosion killed Sunnis and Shiites, Arabs and Kurds.
A similar bombing in Tall Afar in March, which killed more than 80 people, triggered a killing rampage by off-duty Shiite police officers that left 70 Sunni Arabs dead.
In other violence Monday, a roadside bomb exploded at the foot of Diyala Bridge, a span linking two Shiite neighborhoods in east Baghdad. At least nine people were killed and eight injured, police said.
Another bomb in a Christian enclave in east Baghdad killed two people and injured nine others, police said.
Gunmen also detonated a bomb behind a downtown bank, in an apparent attempt to rob it. The bank’s guards clashed with the gunmen until U.S. forces arrived to help secure the scene, the police said. At least one person was reported killed and five injured in the incident.
Police in the city of Baqubah reported the discovery of 60 decomposing bodies buried on the northwestern outskirts of the city in strife-torn Diyala province.
U.S. forces Sunday also captured the chief of an Iraqi rapid-response force who has been accused of complicity with death squads in Khalis, north of Baqubah, the police said.