Iraqi lawmaker says he faces charges; new crisis

BARBARA SURK Associated Press Published:

BAGHDAD (AP) -- Iraq's Shiite-led government wants to bring charges against a member of the Sunni-backed bloc, the lawmaker said Monday, the latest step in a political crisis that erupted just after the U.S. completed its military withdrawal from the violence-wracked nation.

Iraqiya parliamentarian Haidar al-Mulla said he was informed that prosecutors were seeking to charge him for insulting the country's judiciary by publicly questioning its independence from the Shiite-led government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

Iraqiya accuses al-Maliki of sectarian bias and of trying to push the Sunni-backed bloc out of the government to consolidate his own grip on power. Security forces have launched a widespread crackdown against Sunnis, detaining hundreds for alleged ties to the deposed Baath Party of Saddam Hussein.

Iraqiya officials said 89 of its members have been detained on terrorism-related charges in the past three months.

The government set off the crisis by issuing an arrest warrant against the country's top Sunni official, Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi, charging him with running death squads. He denied the charges and escaped to the autonomous Kurdish area, out of reach of authorities in Baghdad.

In parallel, there has been a wave of violence in Iraq since the U.S. pullout in mid-December, killing more than 200 people. Most of the targets have been Shiites, with some apparent reprisal attacks by Sunnis.

Without the American troops acting as a buffer between Sunnis and Shiites, the twin politician and security crises could spark a civil war.

Al-Mulla said Monday he received a notice from the parliament that authorities have requested a vote to strip him of immunity to prosecute him on charges he insulted

Al-Mulla, who is a Shiite member of the overwhelmingly Sunni bloc, said the efforts to strip him of immunity is part of a "vicious campaign against Iraqiya" that underlines the authorities' resolve to squelch any criticism of al-Maliki's five-year rule in the war-ravaged country.

"We will not be silenced. I have the right to express my opinion and criticize inappropriate acts," al-Mulla told The Associated Press by telephone. "We will continue our work and expose any mismanagement of affairs in this country."

Iraqiya lawmakers have ended a protest boycott of the parliament, but their ministers stayed away from last week's Cabinet session. The next one is set for Tuesday, and no decision about their attendance has been made public.

Lawmakers ended the boycott last week, amid accusations that it had been fueling political instability and deprived the bloc's supporters from the Sunni minority of participating in important decisions, such as the nation's $100 billion budget that has yet to be approved by the parliament.

However, the bloc's nine ministers stayed away from the Cabinet session. Iraqiya has not confirmed if the ministers will attend the next weekly meeting, set for Tuesday.

The sectarian fight in the government has been accompanied with a surge in attacks, that have killed more than 200 people last month. The twin crises have raised fears of a reprise of a conflict five years ago.

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Associated Press writer Sameer N. Yacoub in Baghdad contributed to this report.