Al-Maliki lashes out at Sunni leader

( AP ) - Iraq's prime minister lashed out at the country's Sunni Arab vice president in an interview published Tuesday, drawing attention to a bitter rift between two key politicians from rival sects at a time the U.S. is pressing for Iraqi unity.

A U.S. military helicopter, meanwhile, crashed Tuesday near Salman Pak southeast of Baghdad, killing two soldiers and wounding 12, the military said. It said initial reports indicated the crash was not a result of hostile fire. The military did not give the type of helicopter or the nationalities of the victims.

The outburst by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, printed in a newspaper read throughout the Arab world, occurred as American officials are urging the Iraqis to take advantage of a downturn in violence to resolve their differences before next year's planned drawdown of U.S. forces.

In the interview, published by Al-Hayat, a London-based, Arabic-language daily, al-Maliki, a Shiite, said Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi was to blame for a backlog of legislation adopted by parliament but not yet ratified by the three-man presidential council of which the Sunni is a member.

Al-Maliki also said al-Hashemi's Iraq Accordance Front, the largest Sunni bloc in parliament, was not representative of the country's Sunni Arab community.

The prime minister said he had given up trying to persuade five members of al-Hashemi's bloc to return to Cabinet posts they abandoned last August in a dispute with al-Maliki.

Al-Maliki said he planned to name other Sunnis from Anbar province and the cities of Tikrit and Mosul to those Cabinet posts and that "we are in the final selection stage."

For months, al-Hashemi has been a sharp and outspoken critic of al-Maliki, accusing him of pursuing pro-Shiite sectarian policies and restricting decision-making inside a small circle of top aides from his Dawa party.

However, al-Maliki's attack on al-Hashemi and his criticism of the Accordance Front suggested that the rift between the two sides was widening, rather than closing.

"It's a campaign to discredit good intentions," said Lubnah al-Hashemi, the vice president's daughter and his press secretary.

"But we refuse to be drawn into a war of words through the media," she said.

She said the vice president has refused to sign off on some legislation because he wanted "certain things" added in the public interest. She did not elaborate.

The vice president's office e-mailed to The Associated Press a list of 13 draft laws he had rejected. Most were relatively minor. One exception was a bill allowing investors to build and run oil refineries.

The vice president said the legislation could lead to a monopoly over an essential commodity.

Al-Hashemi's ally in the Accordance Front, Adnan al-Dulaimi, said their bloc never claimed it spoke for all Sunni Arabs.

"I wonder why al-Maliki included us in the government and gave us several ministerial posts if we were not representing the Sunnis," al-Dulaimi said.

The U.S. military says overall attacks have fallen 55 percent since nearly 30,000 additional American troops arrived in Iraq by June, and that parts of the country are experiencing their lowest levels of violence in more than two years.

But U.S. officials and many Iraqis fear those gains cannot last unless Iraqis themselves work out their differences and move toward genuine national reconciliation.

"This really is again the time when they need to take advantage of the window they've been given," U.S. Embassy spokesman Philip Reeker said Monday of the Iraqi leadership.

During the Al-Hayat interview, however, al-Maliki rejected charges that he is not doing enough for national reconciliation. He said the percentage of Sunni Arabs in the army and police generally equaled or exceeded their proportion of the national population - 20 percent.

The prime minister also headed toward a showdown with his main Shiite backer, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, over the thorny issue of carving up Iraq into self-rule regions similar to that set up by Iraq's Kurds in three northern provinces in 1991.

The council, Iraq's most powerful Shiite party, has been strongly advocating the creation of a federal region in Iraq's mainly Shiite south, encompassing half of Iraq's 18 provinces.

Al-Maliki, who did not mention the Supreme Council by name, warned that a federal system that granted sweeping powers to different regions could lead to more strife and the eventual breakup of the country.

"I have stated my view candidly on this issue and that is ... the federalism that's wanted by some and which, by the way, is facing opposition from many parties, could leave us without a state, with division, strife and dispute," he said.

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