By Jim Loney
BAGHDAD (Reuters) - The head of the Sunni-backed Iraqiya political bloc said Iraq "stands on the brink of disaster" and issued a list of demands on Wednesday in a political crisis triggered by charges against a Sunni leader.
Iraqiya leader Iyad Allawi, in an editorial for the New York Times, said Iraq was heading towards a "sectarian autocracy that carries with it the threat of devastating civil war."
Sectarian tensions are running high in Iraq ten days after the last U.S. troops pulled out. Shi'ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has sought the arrest of Sunni Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi, accused of running death squads.
The commentary, co-authored by Iraqiya officials Osama al-Nujaifi, the parliament speaker, and Rafie al-Esawi, the finance minister, said bloc leaders were being "hounded and threatened by Mr. Maliki, who is attempting to drive us out of Iraqi political life and create an authoritarian one-party state."
The political crisis, Iraq's worst in a year, threatens Maliki's fragile year-old coalition government, an alliance of Shi'ite, Sunni and Kurdish political blocs.
Nujaifi and Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, on Tuesday proposed a national conference of political leaders to try to resolve the crisis and said allegations against Hashemi should be left to the courts.
But Allawi, in a separate statement, listed a series of demands before he would agree to any conference, including the release of "all detainees held on false charges" and the formation of a panel of top politicians to oversee and prevent interference in legal procedures.
Iraqiya has criticized a recent arrest campaign against hundreds of former members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party over what some officials said was a plot to seize power after U.S. troops left.
Allawi also demanded the government implement an accord reached last year before the coalition government was formed that would have given him leadership of a new national policy council. Allawi has accused Maliki of reneging on the pact.
Allawi said "all options are still open" to resolve the crisis, including early elections and the possibility of a new candidate for prime minister.
Both Iraqiya and the Sadrist movement of anti-American Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr have called for new elections, currently not due until 2014.
Iraq's latest crisis was triggered by the charges against Hashemi and Maliki's request to parliament to fire Sunni Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq. Hashemi and Mutlaq are two of the most senior figures in Iraqiya.
In the editorial, Allawi, a former prime minister, said Maliki had "laid siege to our party," surrounding leaders' homes and offices in Baghdad's Green Zone with government forces.
"...as Iraq once again teeters on the brink, we respectfully ask America's leaders to understand that unconditional support for Mr. Maliki is pushing Iraq down the path to civil war," the editorial said.
"Unless America acts rapidly to help create a successful unity government, Iraq is doomed."
U.S. and Iraqi officials have been engaged in a flurry of talks to try ease tensions in a crisis that could have wider impact in the region with Iraq's Sunni and Shi'ite neighbors.
(Additional reporting by Ahmed Rasheed)