( LatWp ) - Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki refused Sunday to accept the resignations of six Cabinet members, keeping open the door for a possible return of Sunni ministers whose departure last week caused a crisis in his unity government.
Members of the Sunni bloc known as the Iraqi Accordance Front, or Tawafiq in Arabic, said al-Maliki's action would not affect their decision. But a senior member held out the possibility that a resolution could be reached at an upcoming summit of leaders of Iraq's main ethnic and religious blocs.
The U.S. military, meanwhile, announced the deaths of four soldiers. At least 3,669 U.S. personnel have been killed since the start of the Iraq war in 2003, according to the Web site icasualties.org, which tracks military casualties.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said he believed the troop buildup completed in June was beginning to improve security but blamed Iraqi politicians for failing to pass legislation aimed at reconciliation.
He expressed disappointment at the Sunni withdrawal from Cabinet, as well as parliament's decision to take the month of August off. He told NBC's ``Meet the Press'' that he had urged the country's presidency council, which consists of its president and two vice presidents, not to follow parliament's example.
His message, he said, was blunt: ``For every day that we buy you, we're buying it with American blood, and the idea of you going on vacation is unacceptable.''
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice struck a more conciliatory note, telling ''Fox News Sunday`` that ''the leadership is not on recess, and the presidency council and the prime minister are still working.`` But she said the Bush administration had told the Iraqis that they needed to work harder.
U.S. officials, under pressure to show progress in a report to be delivered in Congress on Sept. 15, had hoped that giving Iraq's Sunni Arab minority a stake in the government would foster reconciliation with the majority Shiite Muslims.
President Jalal Talabani, an ethnic Kurd who has been leading efforts to save the unity government, said al-Maliki had informed him of his decision to reject the resignations during a meeting Sunday that also included Vice President Adil Abdul-Mahdi, a Shiite.
Sunni Vice President Tariq Hashemi, who has complained of being sidelined by al-Maliki and other Shiite leaders, was not invited.
At issue is what Tawafiq considers to be the refusal of the dominant Shiite alliance to treat Sunni Arabs as equal partners in the government. Some of al-Maliki's closest aides accuse Tawafiq of links to the insurgency.
Deputy Prime Minister Salam Zikam Ali Zubaie and five other Sunni ministers withdrew from Cabinet on Wednesday, citing the government's failure to respond to a long list of demands, including the release of detainees not charged with specific crimes, respect for human rights, the disbanding of private militias and the involvement of all major parties in security decisions.
Hashemi, the Sunni vice president, did not resign. The only other Sunni who remains in government is the defense minister, who does not belong to Tawafiq.
Al-Maliki, whose office accused the Sunni bloc of political blackmail when it first threatened to bolt, since has adopted a more conciliatory stance. He said Sunday that he hoped the Sunnis would reconsider and promised to act quickly on those demands that were ''legitimate and logical,`` Talabani told reporters.
Iyad Samarrai, secretary-general of the Iraqi Islamic Party, a leading member of Tawafiq, expressed hope that progress could be made at the promised summit among al-Maliki, Talabani, Hashemi, Abdul-Mahdi and Massoud Barzani, head of Iraq's semiautonomous Kurdish region.
Samarrai said the Sunnis would ask that a new power-sharing relationship be spelled out. They also are seeking ''real action`` on their demands.
''To be considered as equal partners, this is the main issue,`` Samarrai said. No date has been set for the summit.
The U.S. military released new details about the killing of the alleged mastermind behind the bombing of a revered Shiite shrine in Samarra last year that unleashed a torrent of sectarian killing and was a turning point in Iraq's civil war.
Haitham Sabah Shaker Mohammed al-Badri was among at least four men spotted by surveillance aircraft Thursday setting up what appeared to be an ambush for troops participating in a U.S. raid east of Samarra, said Rear Adm. Mark I. Fox, a military spokesman.
U.S. helicopters strafed the position, killing the four suspects, including al-Badri and one foreigner, the military said. Ground forces also found weapons and detained seven other suspects at the site, the military said.
Fox identified al-Badri as an operational planner for the Sunni Arab militant group al-Qaida in Iraq. Besides masterminding the February 2006 bombing that destroyed the Samarra shrine's famed golden dome, al-Badri also was responsible for a second bombing that collapsed the mosque's two minarets in June, he said.
In violence Sunday, a mortar barrage in southeast Baghdad killed at least 13 people and injured 17, police said. Some of the shells landed at a gas station, where many of the victims were lined up, causing a fireball that engulfed at least 15 cars, police said.
Police in Baghdad also recovered the bodies of 18 people shot execution style, considered an indication of sectarian killing. Two women were among the victims.