Six cabinet ministers loyal to radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr quit the Iraqi government Monday to protest the prime minister's refusal to set a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. and other coalition forces, dealing a blow to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's already beleaguered government. From northern Iraq, VOA's Margaret Besheer has more.
Nassar al-Rubaie, head of the Sadr bloc in parliament read the statement to the assembly.
He said, in the interest of the Iraqi people and in order to alleviate their suffering, we find it necessary to order the Sadr bloc ministers to immediately withdraw from the government and give their posts to independent men who have the Iraqi people's interests in mind.
The move only affects the cabinet, not the 30 seats that supporters of the radical, anti-American cleric hold in the 275-member legislature. But it is likely to put more pressure on Prime Minister Maliki, who relied on Sadr's support to get his job.
Moqtada al-Sadr has significant influence on the country's majority Shiites, and Monday's move is designed to pressure Mr. Maliki to set a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. and coalition forces from Iraq. Mr. Maliki said last week during a visit to Japan that he sees no need for such a timetable.
Sadr's announcement may not be the only political storm brewing for Mr. Maliki.
Kurdistan Regional Government Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani told VOA Monday, that the Kurdish bloc, which has about 58 seats in the Iraqi parliament, would rethink its support of Mr. Maliki if the prime minister goes ahead with a plan that would effectively delay resolving the status of the disputed oil rich-city of Kirkuk, which lies just outside the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region.
A committee in the parliament is responsible for making recommendations about implementing Article 140 of the Iraqi constitution. That article deals with determining the city's future within the central government and the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region.
Under the constitution Mr. Maliki has the authority to implement those recommendations, but says he will instead refer them to the parliament for a vote.
Prime Minister Barzani says the moment these guidelines are sent to the parliament the normalization process will become further complicated and it will not help the implementation process.
He says he sees this as a step backwards on Mr. Maliki's part from implementing Article 140, and if he insists that the issue should be addressed in this way by the parliament, the Kurdish bloc would review its position on its alliance.
A referendum is due to be held on the city's future by the end of this year. Kirkuk's population is a mix of mainly Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen. Its vast oil and natural gas deposits make it a very valuable city.