KIRKUK, Iraq (AP) – Iraq’s Kurdish president called on the country’s Shiite prime minister to step down, the spokesman for the president’s party said Sunday, escalating a political split between the two factions that make up the government.

Sunni Arab leaders, meanwhile, were angered after the Shiite-dominated parliament passed a new ruling on the key Oct. 15 constitutional referendum making it more difficult for Sunnis to defeat the draft constitution that they oppose.

The political wrangling deepened the splits between Iraq’s three main communities amid a constitutional process that was aimed at bringing them together to build a democratic nation. Kurds complained that Shiites were monopolizing the government, while Sunnis – who have made up the backbone of the violent insurgency – accused Shiites of stacking the deck against them in the political process.

The Kurdish-Shiite split hits the core of the coalition that has made up the transitional government. President Jalal Talabani has made veiled threats to pull the Kurds out of the coalition if their demands are not met, a step that could bring the government’s collapse.

Talabani has accused the Shiite-led United Iraqi Alliance, which holds the majority in parliament, of failing to fairly distribute government positions to Kurds, neglecting ministries run by Kurdish officials and refusing to move ahead on the resettlement of Kurds in the northern city of Kirkuk.

“The time has come for the United Iraqi Alliance and the Kurdistan coalition to study Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari’s stepping aside from his post,” said Azad Jundiyani, a spokesman for Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan.

Jundiyani would not say whether the Kurds would withdraw from the government if the Shiite alliance does not back them in removing al-Jaafari.

The prime minister can be removed by a vote of no-confidence, requiring a simple majority vote in parliament – but the Shiites hold some 150 seats in the 275-member body, making it unlikely.

Jawad al-Maliki, a Shiite legislator and a leader in al-Jaafari’s Dawaa party, denounced the call. “It is not beneficial for Iraq, especially during this period of time, because the country is heading to a referendum and elections,” he said.

Meanwhile, the parliament decision Sunday was the latest instance of the Shiite-dominated government making a favorable interpretation of rules on the constitution.

Those rules state that the constitution is defeated if two-thirds of voters in any three of Iraq’s 18 provinces reject it, even if an overall majority across the country approve.

Iraq’s Sunni Arab majority has been counting on those rules to defeat the charter at the polls. There are four provinces where Sunni Arabs could conceivably make the two-thirds majority “no” vote.

But instead, parliament, which has only 16 Sunni members, approved an interpretation stating that two-thirds of registered voters – rather than two-thirds of all those who cast ballots – must reject the constitution for the rules to apply.

The change effectively raises the bar to reach the two-thirds mark.

“The fraud has begun right from now. We reject this explanation and we will not recognize any referendum based on this explanation,” said Saleh al-Mutlaq, a Sunni politician who was on the body that drew up the draft constitution, but who rejected the final version.

Sunni Arab leaders fear the constitution will fragment Iraq, allowing Shiites in the south and Kurds in the north to form mini-states.


Associated Press correspondent Qassim Abdul-Zahra contributed to this report from Baghdad.

AP-ES-10-02-05 2031EDT

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