Iraqi Finance Minister Rafa al-Essawi announced his resignation on Friday at an anti-government protest, ramping up a conflict between his secular Sunni-backed Iraqiya bloc and the Shiite premier.
State television quoted Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s office as saying the resignation of Essawi, a leading Sunni and Iraqiya member, would not be accepted until an investigation into “his financial and administrative violations” was complete.
“I am with you, I am your son, and I announce today… that I am presenting my resignation from the Iraqi government, and I will not return to this government,” Essawi told thousands of demonstrators in Ramadi, west of Baghdad.
“We are with you, Essawi,” protesters chanted in response.
Maliki is at loggerheads with Iraqiya, which is a part of his national unity government, over its accusations of authoritarianism and sectarianism in the run-up to key provincial polls scheduled to be held next month.
Protests have been staged in Sunni-majority areas of Iraq for weeks, calling for Maliki’s resignation and decrying the alleged targeting of their community by the Shiite-led authorities.
The protests were initially sparked by the arrest of several of Essawi’s guards on terrorism charges in December, but have since expanded markedly.
The resignation “was taken after coordination with Iraqiya, because Dr Rafa al-Essawi thinks that the procedure taken against him by the prime minister made it impossible for (Essawi) to work with him,” MP Haidar al-Mullah, an Iraqiya spokesman, told AFP, referring to the arrest of the guards.
“Iraqiya will discuss all options in order to put pressure to achieve the demands of the protesters,” Mullah said.
In Baghdad, security forces cordoned off Sunni areas including Adhamiyah to prevent protesters from leaving, and set up additional checkpoints in the city.
The Iraqi government has sought to curtail demonstrations by saying it has released thousands of detainees and raised the salaries of the Sahwa anti-Qaeda militiamen.
Deputy Prime Minister Hussein al-Shahristani said on Thursday that 4,000 prisoners have been released since the start of the year, some of whom can request compensation if they are not guilty of a crime.