Two political leaders who put Iraq's prime minister in power met Thursday to discuss if they should withdraw their support, now that a bitter sectarian political deadlock has even led to calls for secession.
Hard-line anti-U.S. Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr flew to Iraq's northern Kurdish region, in what was billed as a historic visit, to meet with its president over how to end the months-long political impasse.
The mini-summit underlined the explosiveness of Iraq in the wake of the U.S. military pullout in December, marked by bloody attacks and the political stalemate, both sectarian in nature.
Speaking to reporters at the airport in Irbil, the capital of the Kurdish region, al-Sadr pointedly avoided blaming Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki personally for letting the Shiite-led government sideline Kurds and Sunnis, as his critics accuse. But the cleric demanded inclusiveness in Iraq's politics, because "divisiveness is not good for the people."
"I have said it many times: the policy of exclusion and the policy of marginalization must end in Iraq," al-Sadr said, wiping his brow repeatedly in the heat during an eight-minute news conference. "All Iraqis should live under one roof and for one goal."
Asked if he would try to broker a new political coalition among al-Maliki's opponents, and try to push the prime minister from power, al-Sadr answered: "I will answer later."
Spokesmen for al-Maliki and the central government in Baghdad could not be immediately reached for comment Thursday.
Kurdish President Massoud Barzani met al-Sadr at the airport, where a red carpet was rolled onto the runway for his first trip to the Kurdish region. The Kurdish president did not join al-Sadr in talking to reporters. The two were due to sit down for extended talks later Thursday night.
It was only with the support of Barzani and al-Sadr that al-Maliki kept his job after his party fell far short of winning the most seats in the 2010 parliamentary elections. Al-Maliki cobbled together a political coalition with the Kurds and al-Sadr's followers, winning the right to head the government.
But he failed to set up a policy committee that Sunnis demanded to serve as a check on the Shiite government, touching off more than a year of bitterness and accusations. Barzani and others charge that al-Maliki is becoming a dictator.
Sunni insurgent groups have responded to their perceived sidelining with deadly attacks against Shiites and government officials. On Thursday, bombings in two of Baghdad's largest Shiite neighborhoods killed five people and wounded 31. Police and medics confirmed the casualties but spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information.
Al-Sadr's visit comes the day after Barzani said in an Associated Press interview that he would give the government until September to break the political logjam. After that, Barzani said, he could consider letting Kurds vote to secede from Iraq and turn their self-rule region into a fully independent state, as many want.
Al-Sadr said he had a similar political discussion with al-Maliki earlier this week, when the two men were in Tehran. He did not disclose details of the talks.
On Thursday he offered an 18-point plan to solve the crisis, mostly through dialogue and political inclusiveness. The plan calls for having good relations with neighboring nations, but to not let them meddle in Iraq's affairs. That appeared to be a reference to Iran, which is close to al-Maliki's Shiite-dominated government.
In a nod to Barzani, al-Sadr said Iraq's oil must be used for the benefit of Iraq's people, "and no individual has the right to control it without participation from others."
Oil disputes _ specifically Baghdad's blacklisting of ExxonMobil from bidding on new projects as punishment for plans to work in the Iraqi Kurdish region _ have been at the heart of recent feuding between al-Maliki and Barzani.
Al-Sadr's growing strength in Iraqi politics has unsettled U.S. officials, who have been offering advice on how to bolster the shaky government since the 2003 invasion _ and since the final departure of American troops last December. Al-Sadr's militia, the Mahdi Army, ran death squads against Sunnis in the worst years of the war, and targeted U.S. troops up until right before they left.
Shiite lawmaker Abbas al-Bayati, a member of the State of Law political coalition that al-Maliki heads, said al-Sadr's plan "represents a useful and fruitful effort for finding a solution to the impasse."
"We highly value his efforts to bring the points of views of all of the blocs close," al-Bayati said.
Associated Press Writers Mustafa Flaih in Irbil, Iraq, and Mazin Yahya in Baghdad contributed to this report. Follow Lara Jakes on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/larajakesAP