Iraq’s premier backed off threats to fire ministers boycotting cabinet, instead naming temporary replacements Wednesday, as the UN voiced concern over a row that has stoked sectarian tensions.
Nuri al-Maliki’s decision was the latest in an apparent calming of Iraq’s political crisis, which has seen the country’s Sunni Vice President charged with running a death squad and the main Sunni-backed bloc boycott parliament and cabinet, shortly after US troops completed their withdrawal.
Despite ministers belonging to the Iraqiya bloc skipping Tuesday’s cabinet meeting, Maliki declined to follow through on an earlier threat to sack them, instead declaring they were on “extended leave”, Maliki’s spokesman said.
“We cannot allow the government’s work to stop,” Ali Mussawi said.
“Their absence gave us two choices — either fire them or consider them on leave. The cabinet voted that they were considered to be on extended leave.”
Their portfolios were temporarily handed to other sitting ministers, with deputy premier responsible for energy Hussein al-Shahristani handling the electricity ministry, and Planning Minister Ali al-Shukri taking over finance, a parliament official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Trade Minister Khayrullah Babakir Mohammed was handed the industry portfolio, while Higher Education Minister Ali al-Adeeb takes over education and Minister of State for Parliamentary Affairs Safaldin al-Safi is charged with Provincial Affairs.
For the past two weeks, Iraq has been engulfed in a political crisis sparked by authorities’ decision to issue an arrest warrant for Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi on terror charges.
Hashemi, who is holed up in the northern autonomous Kurdish region, denies the charges and his Iraqiya party has boycotted cabinet and parliament, the latter of which re-opened on Tuesday without the party’s participation.
Sunni Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlak has decried Maliki as a dictator “worse than Saddam Hussein”, and the premier has called for him to be sacked. MPs were due to have considered that request on Tuesday, but the motion was not discussed or voted on.
A statement on Wednesday said UN special envoy Martin Kobler met with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, Kurdish regional leader Massud Barzani and other senior Kurdish officials to discuss the row.
Kobler “expressed concern about the about the current political stalemate in the country,” the statement said. A day earlier, the UN said Secretary General Ban Ki-moon was concerned the crisis could “contribute to further insecurity.”
Mutlak has offered to apologise for his remarks, and several other politicians have toned down earlier heated rhetoric which at one point saw Maliki threaten to dissolve a power-sharing government.
Several Iraqi leaders have called for urgent talks of politicians from all major blocs to resolve the crisis, but no such meetings have yet been held.
“The political process, in spite of all the weaknesses it suffers, is still the only solution,” parliament speaker Osama al-Nujaifi, a Sunni and a member of Iraqiya, said in his speech.
“The national conference that Jalal Talabani has called for is the right way to resolve the crisis, and we hope it will succeed.”