Lawmakers from Iraq's largest Sunni-backed bloc stood by their boycott of parliament when the assembly reconvened Tuesday after a two-week break — another reminder of the deepening political crisis that has revived the country's sectarian tensions.
The Iraqiya bloc is also considering a pullout from the ruling coalition to protest an arrest warrant by Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government for the country's top Sunni politician, Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi. Iraqiya lawmakers accuse al-Maliki of hoarding power and want a greater role in governance, particularly over decisions involving state security forces.
"We will keep boycotting until they fulfill our demands of authentic partnership and stop marginalizing Iraqiya," Sunni lawmaker Ahmed al-Mesari said.
Iraqiya suspended its participation in parliament on Dec. 18 — the same day the last American troops left Iraq at the end of a nearly nine-year war — to protest the control of key posts by al-Maliki.
Al-Hashemi, a member of Iraqiya, remains holed up in Iraq's northern Kurdish region. He is accused of running a hit squad targeting government officials — charges he denies and says are politically motivated.
In another indication of the growing sectarian tensions in Iraq, Kurdish lawmakers briefly walked out of the first parliamentary session of 2012, saying they were upset because Shiite lawmaker Hussein al-Asadi criticized Iraq's President Jalal Talabani, the country's senior Kurdish politician, for sheltering al-Hashemi. They later agreed to rejoin the session.
While officially a guest of his Kurdish boss, Talabani, al-Hashemi's presence in the semiautonomous northern Kurdish region effectively puts him out of reach of security forces under al-Maliki's control. The Kurdish region is part of Iraq but has its own security forces. The Iraqi army and national police do not operate there.
The political crisis threatens to further destabilize Iraqi politics and security just weeks after the last U.S. combat troops left the country.
Iraq was controlled by the minority Sunnis under Saddam until the U.S.-led war that began in 2003 ousted him. The country's majority Shiites have dominated the government since Saddam's ouster, though the U.S. has pushed hard for the inclusion of Sunnis and Kurds with a meaningful role in the governing coalition.
Al-Maliki has threatened to form a government without al-Hashemi's Sunni-backed political party, though he would likely need to retain the support of the Kurdish bloc to hold onto power.
As parliament convened Tuesday, Iraq's Interior Ministry — which al-Maliki controls — announced it had arrested a ring of 21 Sunni insurgents allegedly involved in attacks in Baghdad.
Deputy Interior Minister Adnan al-Asadi said the cell is linked to Saddam Hussein's outlawed Baath party and was responsible for about 300 attacks against government employees and security forces.
The alleged leader of the cell, Abdul-Khaliq Abdul-Sattar, told a news conference organized by the ministry that he received orders from Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, the highest ranking member of Saddam's ousted regime still at large.