Iraqi Sunnis, Kurds boycott cabinet to back protests

Tue Jan 8, 2013 8:22am EST
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By Patrick Markey and Aseel Kami

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraqi Sunni Muslim and Kurdish ministers boycotted a cabinet session on Tuesday to show support for protests that are threatening Shi'ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's fragile cross-sectarian government.

Thousands of protesters have demonstrated and blocked a key highway in Iraq's Sunni provinces for more than two weeks to challenge Maliki, a leader many Sunnis feel has marginalized their community a year after the last U.S. troops pulled out.

In a rival show of backing for the Shi'ite premier, around 7,000 protesters marched on Tuesday in the southern cities of Basra and Kerbala, waving Maliki portraits and banners supporting the Shi'ite parties in his coalition.

Protests and the conflict in nearby Syria, where mainly Sunni insurgents are fighting President Bashar al-Assad, an ally of Shi'ite Iran, are fuelling worries that Iraq risks sliding back into the sectarian slaughter that peaked in 2006 and 2007.

Sunni-backed Iraqiya party lawmakers said their ministers stayed away from the cabinet meeting in support of the protests sparked in late December when security forces arrested bodyguards of Sunni Finance Minister Rafaie al-Esawi.

"They made a decision to boycott the session today," Iraqiya lawmaker Jaber al-Jaberi said. "They don't see a response from the government to the demands of the protesters... or to accepting power-sharing."

Alaa Talabani, a Kurdish lawmaker, said party leaders had also asked Kurdish ministers to stay away. A senior government source at the meeting confirmed Sunni and Kurdish ministers had missed the Council of Ministers session.

Violence and bombings are down sharply since the height of the OPEC country's conflict, but the government, split among Shi'ites, minority Sunnis and ethnic Kurds, has been deadlocked over power-sharing since it was formed in December 2010.   Continued...