A suicide car bombing near Iraq's Interior Ministry headquarters in Baghdad killed five people on Monday, coming as Iraqi politicians hunker down in meetings aimed at defusing the political crisis that has erupted following the withdrawal of U.S. troops.
The Baghdad blast, which also left at least 39 people wounded, came after a wave of attacks across Baghdad on Thursday killed 60 people, raising the specter of renewed sectarian violence amid a standoff between Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, a Sunni Arab leader who the government accuses of running hit squads targeting Shiites.
In the past few days, Iraqi politicians have held a series of meetings in Baghdad and the country's semiautonomous Kurdistan region in an effort to step away from the abyss and avert the unraveling of the political system.
One proposal discussed, according to politicians familiar with those talks, was to transfer the investigation in the case against Mr. Hashemi to the Kurdish region, which has its own government, judiciary and armed forces. Mr. Hashemi has been the guest of officials in the Kurdish region since an arrest warrant was issued against him last week.
The proposal came as Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has sought to counter challenges to his government both in Baghdad and the provinces, as he has appeared to exploit leadership struggles and tribal tensions among his foes. According to Iraqi politicians, Mr. Maliki has been holding talks with several parliamentarians in Mr. Hashemi's predominantly Sunni political faction, Iraqiya, seeking to persuade them to break away from their bloc in return for promises of ministerial posts and other inducements.
The apparent divide-and-conquer strategy underscores how the present fault lines in Iraq go well beyond the sectarian Sunni-Shiite schism and the Arab-Kurd ethnic divisions. It also raises the prospect of confrontation on multiple fronts on the intra-communal, tribal and local levels should the political system, created in the aftermath of the toppling of Saddam Hussein's regime more than eight years ago, collapse under the weight of a crisis that erupted with the formal end of the U.S. military mission in the country earlier this month.
In a sign of the intense brinkmanship under way and complexities that lie ahead, the head of the political party loyal to radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr called for the dissolution of Iraq's parliament and new elections. The anti-American Sadrists' movement is a key partner in the Shiite-dominated government of Prime Minister Maliki. Bahaa al-Aaraji, the head of the movement's bloc in parliament, said new elections were needed because "the present partners [in government] can't come up with solutions [to the crisis] in addition to the threat of Iraq's partition."
There was no word from Mr. Sadr and Mr. Aaraji himself noted that the proposal would have to be discussed first with the movement's partners in a broad Shiite coalition that includes Mr. Maliki.
The statement appeared to be more of a warning shot to Mr. Maliki and in reaction to a news conference given by one of Mr. Sadr's bitter rivals in the holy Shiite city of Najaf earlier Monday. Qais al-Khazaali, who heads the Asaib Ahl al-Haq Shiite militia accused by the U.S. military of killing American soldiers and kidnapping westerners, announced that his group was definitively laying down its weapons "to participate in the political process and correct what can be corrected." Mr. Maliki has embraced the move.
The political jostling comes amid fresh doubts among average Iraqis over the ability of the security forces to protect the population from the type of coordinated and indiscriminate bombings that rocked Baghdad last week.
Mr. Hashemi, the vice president, has denied the charges that he ran anti-Shiite hit squads, describing them as politically motivated. Several members of Iraq's political establishment, including President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd who holds the largely ceremonial post in Baghdad but is also part of the duopoly of power in the Kurdish region, have rallied to his defense.
At the prodding of U.S. officials including Vice President Joe Biden, Mr. Talabani and the other Kurdish leader, Masoud Barzani, are trying to convene a meeting of Iraq's feuding political factions to contain the fallout from the present crisis.
Mr. Hashemi's Sunni-dominated Iraqiya faction—which along with the faction headed by the Kurds forms part of Mr. Maliki's shaky Shiite-led coalition government—continued a boycott of cabinet meetings and Parliament sessions initiated almost 10 days ago. The boycott was called to protest what they described as the prime minister's increasingly authoritarian tendencies, including what they call his suppression of a recent push by several predominantly Sunni provinces to gain more autonomy from the central government in Baghdad.
"Respect your partners or you will be swept away by the Arab Spring and become a thing of the past," said Finance Minister Rafie al-Issawi, one of the boycotting Iraqiya ministers, in a warning to Mr. Maliki issued Sunday from Salahuddin, the first Sunni-dominated province to declare its bid for semi-autonomy in October.
But there were indications already that four of the eight Iraqiya ministers in Mr. Maliki's 30-member cabinet weren't fully committed to the boycott, exposing the rifts and competing agendas within the Sunni bloc.
Mr. Maliki has also sought to neutralize further efforts by local officials in Sunni provinces to press ahead with their demand for more powers independent from Baghdad.
The local government of the staunchly tribal Anbar Province, which is based in the city of Ramadi west of Baghdad, has said that it would declare itself a region during the first week of January unless the central government meets a series of demands that range from allocating more funds to it to curtailing the presence of the Iraqi armed forces in the province and their ability to carry out raids and arrests.
But already Mr. Maliki, who for years has sought to curry favor with Iraqi tribes through patronage, has allied himself with powerful tribal forces within the same Sunni province opposed to this move."If a region is declared, then there will be massacres on the streets," warned Hameed Torki al-Shoka, head of Anbar's paramount tribal council, while praising Mr. Maliki.
Mr. Shoka said regionalism and federalism as proscribed by Iraq's Constitution was in principle "a civilized thing," but that the timing was bad given the intense and often bloody struggles still consuming the tribes of Anbar.
By SAM DAGHER, The Wall Street Journal