BAGHDAD: Iraq's most senior leaders are to hold a crisis summit this week to find a way to heal the sectarian split in their beleaguered national unity government and head off more violence, they said yesterday.
At what one senior Western diplomat said was a "moment of truth" for Iraq's elected leaders, the Shi'ite premier refused to accept the resignation of six Sunni members of his cabinet and promised to discuss their concerns.
Prime Minister Nuri Al Maliki yesterday met President Jalal Talabani, who is a Kurd, and Vice President Adel Abdel Mehdi, a fellow Shi'ite.
Tellingly, Vice President Tareq Al Hashemi, the senior Sunni Arab in the government and a critic of Maliki's alleged sectarian bias, was not present, but his colleagues vowed to hold inclusive talks in the coming days.
"The prime minister's position is that he has refused to accept the resignations. This is a good thing and the door is open to discuss this topic," Abdel Mehdi announced after the meeting.
On Wednesday, Iraq's main Sunni political bloc, National Concord Front, said it was withdrawing its five ministers and deputy prime minister from the coalition, dealing a blow to the government's claims to represent all Iraqis.
Since the US-led invasion of March 2003, Iraq has plunged into an abyss of overlapping civil conflicts that have divided its rival religious and ethnic communities, and left tens of thousands of civilians dead.
Last year's formation of an elected government of national unity held out the promise of reconciliation, but Maliki's rule has been undermined by bitter sectarian rivalries both within and outside his fragile coalition.
Shi'ite parties suspect Sunni leaders of nostalgia for the days of former dictator Saddam Hussein, when their minority sect dominated political power, and accuse them of supporting violent insurgent groups.
Sunni leaders accuse the triumphant Shi'ite parties of ties with Iraq's powerful neighbour Iran and condemn their complicity with Shi'ite militias that have been accused of attacking Sunni civilians.
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice yesterday defended the Iraqi government's efforts to end sectarian strife there but warned that Baghdad leaders "need to work harder" on national unity