Iraq's president on Saturday urged the nation's bickering factions to resolve the bitter political dispute that has gripped the government for nearly six months, warning that the crisis threatens to split the country.
President Jalal Talabani's statement, posted on his website, is the latest plea for an end to the crisis that has engulfed Iraq since Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government issued an arrest warrant for the country's Sunni vice president in December _ just as the last U.S. troops left the country.
Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish politicians have been holding meetings for weeks to discuss how to resolve the deadlock, including whether to try to push al-Maliki to step down before the end of his four-year term in 2014. Al-Maliki's critics accuse him of consolidating power and sidelining both Sunnis and Kurds, touching off a political impasse that has brought government work to a near standstill.
Already, the president of Iraq's northern self-rule Kurdish region has said he will hold a popular referendum on whether to secede if the deadlock is not solved by local elections set for September.
"I am firmly convinced of the seriousness of the current circumstances which require that we speed up efforts to sit at the table of constructive and fraternal dialogue," said Talabani, a Kurd, whose post is largely ceremonial.
Otherwise, he said, the crisis "could lead to growing tensions and exacerbate the risks and problems."
Talabani in the past has played the role of a mediator in Iraq's frequent political disputes.
The political threat to al-Maliki has shifted over several months, and it's not clear whether parliament will force the vote to oust him. The prime minister on Saturday issued his own plea for talks, saying "dialogue and clarity is what can bring good."
"The dialogue should be objective and on the basis of acceptance of others," al-Maliki said in a statement issued on his website. "Because (opposing) lineups do not bring any good to Iraq."
After his political alliance fell short of winning the most seats in parliament to a secular but Sunni-dominated coalition in 2010 elections, al-Maliki kept his job only by cobbling together enough support from Kurdish leaders and hardline Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, his longtime rival.
But over the last two years, al-Sadr has shifted to the ranks of the prime minister's Kurdish and Sunni critics, who complain that the government is corrupt and is not doing enough to provide jobs and public services like electricity for Iraqis.
Experts fear the political impasse will strain already simmering tensions and ignite more violence.
On Saturday, a roadside bomb killed three Iraqi soldiers in Badoush, a town in northern Iraq, two security officials said. Badoush is about 20 kilometers (12 miles) northwest of Mosul, Iraq's third-largest city and a former al-Qaida stronghold. Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information.
Associated Press writer Lara Jakes contributed to this report.