BAGHDAD — Iraq needs new leaders to prevent the country from disintegrating, the leader of the main Sunni-backed bloc said Wednesday, reflecting the severity of a sectarian political battle in the Shiite-led government, accompanied by violence, just a month after the exit of U.S. forces.
The leader of the Iraqiya bloc, Ayad Allawi, was responding to a bold step by Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, issuing an arrest warrant against the nation's top Sunni official, sending him into virtual internal exile.
"Iraq is at a crossroads and I say that Iraq needs forgiving leaders, who will raise above their personal hatred," Allawi told a new conference in Baghdad, accusing the government of stoking sectarian tensions to divert attention from its failures.
Last month, al-Maliki's government issued an arrest warrant against Sunni Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi, charging he ran death squads that targeted Shiite officials. In protest, Iraqiya began boycotting parliament and Cabinet sessions. On Tuesday the remaining Cabinet ministers suspended the Sunni-backed members until they end their boycott.
Al-Hashemi denied charges 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 political battle coincides with a wave of bombing attacks, most of them targeting Shiites, killing more than 160 people this year. 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.
Allawi accused al-Maliki of unfairly targeting Sunni officials and deliberately triggering a political crisis that is tearing Iraq apart. Allawi said Iraq needs a new prime minister or new elections.
"This is not the country that we fought the dictatorship for ... (and) not the democracy and freedom that we made sacrifices for," said Allawi, who served as prime minister in the government the U.S. formed after toppling Saddam Hussein's regime in 2003.
If it prefers not to call an election, Allawi said, al-Maliki's National Alliance bloc should name a new prime minister,who will respect the U.S.-brokered power-sharing agreement that enabled the formation of the current government after months of political bargaining following an inconclusive parliamentary election in March 2010.
The government crisis has intensified sectarian resentments that have remained raw in Iraq since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion unleashed fierce fighting between Sunni and Shiite militias battling for dominance and killing tens of thousands civilians on both sides of the sectarian divide just a few years ago.
Attacks have surged since the last U.S. troops left Dec. 18.
On Wednesday, suspected insurgents killed a member of the government-allied Sunni militia along with three of his sons in the city of Latifiyah, about 20 miles (30 kilometers) south of Baghdad.
In Baghdad, police officials said a mortar round landed near the Turkish Embassy in the northeastern part of the capital. There were no casualties.
Associated Press writer Barbara Surk contributed to this report.