BAGHDAD Iraq's largest Sunni Arab political bloc said Wednesday it has suspended talks on ending its boycott of the Shiite-led government due to a dispute over which positions it would assume, the head of the bloc said Wednesday.
The decision was a setback to Prime Minster Nouri al-Maliki's efforts to bring the Sunnis back into the political fold to shore up recent security gains.
"The talks yielded nothing and the government's response was not in line with our demands so we have decided to suspend them," said Adnan al-Dulaimi, who leads the Sunni National Accordance Front, which holds 44 of 275 parliamentary seats.
The bloc, which comprises three parties, pulled its members out of the 39-member Cabinet in August, saying they were not getting enough say in decision-making.
But Sunni politicians said last month that they were negotiating a possible return, apparently swayed by al-Maliki's crackdown against Shiite militias that focused on the feared Mahdi Army of anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
Al-Sadr's followers also left the government last year after the prime minister refused their demands for a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq.
The prime minister, himself a Shiite, expressed optimism on April 25, saying he expected to be ready to present a new Cabinet list "within a few days."
But Sunni officials said a deal was held up by internal disagreements over who should hold which posts.
Al-Dulaimi complained Wednesday that al-Maliki had refused to let his bloc keep the leadership of the Planning Ministry and offered the Communications Ministry instead.
Iraq's Planning Ministry is considered a key portfolio because it conducts research and studies and implements economic and human development projects in Iraq in cooperation with governmental and non-governmental parties.
It also is of symbolic importance to the Accordance Front because it is currently led by a former member of the bloc who was expelled after he broke ranks over the boycott.
"The Communications Ministry has no value in contrary to the planning one," al-Dulaimi told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. "We need at least one key portfolio or two service ministries."
The dispute flared as al-Maliki flew to Stockholm, Sweden, for a U.N. conference aimed at reviewing political and security progress in Iraq.
The prime minister is likely to face renewed pressure at the gathering, which begins Thursday, to build on a drop in violence to achieve progress on political goals, including reconciliation between the country's Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds.
With so many Cabinet posts vacant, al-Maliki has struggled to keep together the disparate factions of his government and reconcile Iraq's feuding Shiite and Sunni politicians.
But he has recently won praise for bold crackdowns on Shiite militias in the southern city of Basra and Sunni insurgents in the northern city of Mosul.
When the Accordance Front withdrew from the government, they had five Cabinet posts, plus the vice premiership. But soon afterward, one of the Accordance figures, Ali Baban, agreed to return to his post as planning minister. He was consequently thrown out of the Front as punishment for defying the group's decision to quit.
The only other Sunni in the Cabinet, Defense Minister Abdul-Qader al-Obeidi, is an independent who remained in his post throughout.
U.S. troops, meanwhile, captured eight suspected insurgents, including a man believed to be a longtime al-Qaida in Iraq leader who was involved in a June 30 attack on American forces in a remote area in Anbar province known as Donkey Island, the military said.
The fierce 23-hour battle at Donkey Island left two Americans dead, along with 35 of the enemy. The suspect was captured along with three others Tuesday in Baghdad, the military said.
Four other men believed to have links to senior al-Qaida in Iraq leaders were captured Wednesday in Mosul, according to the statement.
South of Baghdad, the U.S. military returned 101 Iraqi detainees home to the Mahmoudiyah, Latifiyah, Youssifiyah and Rashid areas after they were released from the Camp Bucca detention center.
Tribal leaders greeted the men, including one who sat in a wheelchair and said he had been arrested on Oct. 5, 2007, for financing an insurgent group.
Military officials said the release was part of its effort to generate goodwill in the area, which was long known as the Sunni triangle of death because of frequent insurgent attacks, but has seen a steep drop of violence over the past year.
In violence Wednesday, sporadic gunbattles broke out in a Shiite stronghold in southeastern Baghdad as detentions and raids against al-Sadr's followers continue to strain a truce that ended nearly two months of fierce clashes in the capital.
Iraqi police officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to release the information, said three civilians were killed and five others wounded in the fighting that broke out about 6 a.m.
Associated Press writer Bushra Juhi contributed to this report.