BAGHDAD -- Iraq's political
crisis worsened Monday as five more ministers announced a boycott of Cabinet
meetings - leaving the embattled prime minister's unity government with no
members affiliated with Sunni political factions.
Meanwhile, a suicide bomber killed at
least 28 people in a northern city, including 19 children, some playing
hopscotch and marbles in front of their homes. And the American military
reported five new US deaths: Four soldiers were killed in a combat explosion in
restive Diyala province north of the capital Monday, and a soldier was killed
and two were wounded during fighting in eastern Baghdad on Sunday.
An Iraqi Army armored
vehicle is seen outside the Abu Hanifa mosque in the Azamiyah neighborhood
of north Baghdad, Iraq after Iraqi troops raided the mosque on Monday,
Aug. 6, 2007. Acting on tips from local residents, a US military
statement said, Iraqi soldiers searched the mosque and uncovered a
sizeable cache of weapons in the courtyard. [AP]
The new cracks in Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government appeared even
as US military officials sounded cautious notes of progress on security, citing
strides against insurgents linked to al-Qaida in Iraq but also new threats from
Iranian-backed Shiite militias.
Despite the new US accusations of Iranian meddling, the US and Iranian
ambassadors met Monday for their third round of talks in just over two months. A
US embassy spokesman called the talks between US Ambassador Ryan Crocker and his
counterpart, Hassan Kazemi Qomi, "frank and serious."
But it was al-Maliki's troubles that seized the most attention.
The Cabinet boycott of five ministers loyal to former Iraqi leader Ayad
Allawi left the government, at least temporarily, without participants where
were members of the Sunni political apparatus - a deep blow to the prime
minister's attempt to craft reconciliation among the country's majority Shiites
and minority Sunnis and Kurds.
The defense minister is from a Sunni background but has no political ties and
was chosen by al-Maliki.
The Allawi bloc, a mixture of Sunnis and Shiites, cited al-Maliki's failure
to respond to its demands for political reform. The top Sunni political bloc
already had pulled its six ministers from the 40-member Cabinet of al-Maliki, a
Shiite, last week.
Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, who has been trying to broker the Sunni
bloc's return in a bid to hold the government together, met Monday with Crocker
and a White House envoy.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the United
States was working well with the al-Maliki government, but he did not give the
kind of enthusiastic endorsement that President Bush and his aides once did.
"There's a very healthy political debate that is going on in Iraq, and that
is good," McCormack said. "It's going to be for them (the Iraqi people) to make
the judgments about whether or not that government is performing."
Lawmaker Hussam al-Azawi, of the bloc loyal to Allawi, said the boycott began
with Monday's Cabinet meeting. The ministers intend to continue overseeing their
"We demanded broader political participation by all Iraqis to achieve real
national reconciliation ... and an end to sectarian favoritism," al-Azawi said.
Meanwhile, Iraqi authorities girded for a major Shiite pilgrimage later this
week in Baghdad with plans to tighten security.
Sunni insurgents often target such gatherings. And this particular annual
march, to commemorate the eighth-century death of a key Shiite saint, was struck
by tragedy in 2005, when thousands of Shiite pilgrims, panicked by rumors of a
suicide bomber, broke into a stampede on a bridge, killing 1,000.
Brig. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi, an Iraqi military spokesman for Baghdad, said
the government was considering a driving ban during the march this week, but had
not made a decision.
However, Iraqi security forces will intensify checkpoints and marchers will
be banned from carrying weapons, cell phones or even bags, he said.
In Tal Afar to the north, officials slapped an immediate curfew on the
religiously mixed city after a suicide bomber slammed his truck into a crowded
Shiite neighborhood. The blast killed at least 28 people, including at least 19
children, according to Brig. Gen. Najim Abdullah, who said the dump truck was
filled with explosives and covered with a layer of gravel.
The powerful Monday morning blast caused houses to collapse as many families
were getting ready for the day ahead, and officials said the death toll could
Several residents said boys and girls were playing hopscotch and marbles
outside the houses at the time of the explosion.
"This is an ugly crime. I cannot understand how the insurgents did not think
about these children," said one man, Kahlil Atta, a wedding photographer in the
Tal Afar, which was cited by Bush last March as a success story after major
military operations against insurgents, has been the frequent site of Sunni
extremist attacks in the past year.
Elsewhere, 60 decomposing bodies were found in a mainly Sunni area that had
been under the control of al-Qaida in Iraq west of Baqouba, according to a
Diyala police official. The US military said it had no information about any
At least 53 other people were killed or found dead elsewhere in Iraq,
according to police. Those included the bodies of five soldiers who had been
ambushed by gunmen while on their way home for vacation north of Tikrit.
All Iraqi police officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were
not authorized to release information.
The Iranian talks come as the US military steps up accusations that Tehran is
arming and training Shiite militants to attack American forces in Iraq.
Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno, the US second-in-command, said Sunday that rogue
Shiite militiamen with Iranian weapons and training launched 73 percent of the
attacks that killed or wounded American forces last month in Baghdad, nearly
double the figure six months earlier.
Tehran has denied US allegations that it is fueling violence in Iraq.
On Monday, the Iranian delegation criticized what it called America's
"suspicious" security approach toward Iraq, according to the Islamic Republic
News Agency. It called for "a change in the broad policies and approach of the