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Iraq Transition

Sunni demand could unravel Iraqi government

Story Highlights

• Top Sunni official sets a May 15 deadline to pull out from Iraq's government
• Tariq al-Hashimi says Sunnis are feeling "meaningless" in the government
• If Sunnis aren't an equal partner, he says it's "bye-bye" political process
• He says he has rejected for now an invitation to meet with President Bush
From Nic Robertson
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BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- Iraq's top Sunni official has set a deadline of next week for pulling his entire bloc out of the government -- a potentially devastating blow to reconciliation efforts within Iraq. He also said he turned down an offer by President Bush to visit Washington until he can count more fully on U.S. help.

Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi made his comments in an interview with CNN. He said if key amendments to the Iraq Constitution are not made by May 15, he will step down and pull his 44 Sunni politicians out of the 275-member Iraqi parliament.

"If the constitution is not subject to major changes, definitely, I will tell my constituency frankly that I have made the mistake of my life when I put my endorsement to that national accord," he said. (Watch al-Hashimi express anger over lack of power-sharing Video)

Specifically, he wants guarantees in the constitution that the country won't be split into Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish federal states that he says will disadvantage Sunnis.

Al-Hashimi's cooperation with Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's government is widely seen as essential if there is to be a realistic chance of bridging the Shiite-Sunni divide in Iraq -- one of the key goals of the Bush administration.

The withdrawal of the Sunni bloc would unravel months of efforts to foster political participation by Sunnis in Iraq's government. It also would further weaken al-Maliki just weeks after Shiite Cabinet ministers allied with Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr bolted from the government.

Al-Hashimi's Iraqi Islamic Party was key in getting Sunnis out to vote in the December 2005 election. Sunnis had been reluctant to take part in the political process, and many were only convinced to do so with the promise of changes to the Iraqi Constitution. Al-Hashimi said the United States co-signed those changes, and now a year and a half later nothing has been done.

Without a change to the constitution, he said, "The situation would be a disaster for Iraq."

He added, "I would like to see the identity of my country, in fact, restored back."

Al-Hashimi said he has expressed his concerns to Bush, and that for now he will not travel to the United States unless he knows it will result in action.

Al-Hashimi was invited to Washington during a recent phone call with Bush. The Iraqi leader said he was "very clear" to Bush that "our [Sunni] participation is quite unfortunately becoming meaningless."

Bush and al-Hashimi have met once before in Washington, in December.

National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe said Bush did invite al-Hashimi to the White House again, as he often does when he speaks with Iraqi leaders.

"No one here is aware of any refusal to come," Johndroe said. "That has not been conveyed to us."

Bush talks with Iraqi prime minister

On Monday, the president held a 25-minute videoconference with al-Maliki, the White House and the prime minister's office announced. In Washington, White House spokesman Tony Snow said political reconciliation efforts were "the focal point of those conversations."

Al-Maliki talked about getting leaders of Iraq's major factions together "to sit down in a very practical way and say, 'Let's get this stuff fixed,' " Snow said.

"What you got was a very clear sense from the prime minister that it was important to be making progress," he said.

Al-Maliki's office said Bush will dispatch a senior administration official to Iraq to rally support for the government, while the prime minister "reaffirmed the importance of continuing cooperation and coordination" between U.S. and Iraqi troops now trying to pacify the capital.

Al-Maliki's Shiite-dominated government has been under great pressure politically to develop good relations with Sunnis, who have been alienated from post-Saddam Hussein Iraq and have supported the insurgency.

Sunnis, who prevailed under Hussein despite being a minority in Iraq, are concerned about being shunned from public life as a result of de-Baathification policies and want to be included in the fair sharing of Iraqi oil revenues and other resources.

Al-Hashimi said that his patience is running thin with the government's failure to promote reconciliation and that he feels he is not consulted regularly on key decisions. In addition, he said, he sees growing frustrations within the Sunni community that they are being left out of the political process.

The vice president is feeling the heat on all sides. Al Qaeda in Iraq -- which is made up of Sunni extremists -- recently issued a warning to him, saying he was on the "wrong political path." Al-Hashimi said that al Qaeda is gaining strength in some areas, including parts of Baghdad, because Sunnis were frustrated by the lack of political progress. (Watch al-Hashimi talk about safety in Baghdad Video)

If Sunnis aren't an equal partner in the government, he said, they should say "bye-bye to the political process."

Asked if that meant all-out civil war with Shiites, he said no.

"I'm not saying that I'm going to war," he said, adding he would not encourage his bloc to get involved with "any sort of violence whatsoever."

At the same time, he said Sunnis will be "frustrated" and people will "think on other alternatives."

But he said he'd also prefer not to reach that point.

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Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi says Sunnis are increasingly feeling "meaningless" in the political process.


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