BAGHDAD — Iraq's government, already unable to reconcile rival Sunni and Shiite Muslim factions, seemed headed for complete paralysis Monday as five more Cabinet ministers announced that they'd boycott government meetings.
If the ministers from the secular Iraqiya political list hold to their decision, Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki will be unable to convene a quorum of the council of ministers to approve legislation or take other action weeks before U.S. officials are to make a crucial mid-September assessment of the success or failure of American policy here.
U.S. officials said they'd have no immediate comment. "Things change here by the hour," U.S. Embassy spokesman Phil Reeker said in an e-mail.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack issued a lukewarm statement of support for Maliki, in contrast to earlier ringing endorsements from President Bush.
"There's a very healthy political debate that's going on in Iraq, and that's good," McCormack said. "It's going to be for them (the Iraqis) to make the judgments about whether or not that government is performing."
Without action by Maliki's government, U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker and military commander Army Gen. David Petraeus are unlikely to be able to tell Congress that Iraq is making progress on key political fronts. A mid-July assessment painted a bleak picture of the chances for Iraqi political reconciliation.
"The situation is very fragile," said Hajim al Hassani, an Iraqiya member of parliament.
The Iraqiya ministers' decision to skip government meetings brings to 17 the number of ministers who've left the government or suspended their participation in it.
Last week, six members of the Sunni Accordance Front quit, saying that Maliki, a Shiite, had ignored 12 demands, including that he stop the infiltration of the country's security services by members of Shiite militias. That followed a decision in April by six ministers loyal to Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr to leave, saying Maliki had failed to insist on a timetable for a U.S. withdrawal.
The Iraqiya faction in parliament is led by Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite whom American officials had appointed as Iraq's prime minister when the U.S. dissolved the Coalition Provisional Authority, which had governed Iraq for the first 14 months after Saddam Hussein's ouster.
Hassani called the boycott the "first step toward withdrawal."
"They are not happy with the performance of the government," Hassani said. "The main point is trying to pressure and try to force the government to do some reforms and present some services to the people. Of course, the parliament is not meeting and the prime minister can't do anything unless the parliament comes back."
President Bush ordered another 28,000 troops to Iraq in January, arguing that a military crackdown might cut violence and allow reconciliation between Sunni and Shiite politicians over key issues.
But in spite of the U.S. troop surge, there have been no steps toward reconciliation. Shiite militias have continued to force Sunni residents from their neighborhoods in Baghdad, and parliament has taken no action on a range of legislation intended to ease tensions, including setting rules for hiring former members of Saddam's Baath party in government positions.
With Iraq's parliament on vacation until September, American officials had resigned themselves to no progress on the congressionally established benchmarks. Now, action is unlikely even when parliament returns, since Iraq's constitution requires that the council of ministers approve all legislation first.
Meanwhile, Crocker met Monday for the third time with his Iranian counterpart, Ambassador Hassan Kazemi Qomi, to discuss security concerns.
The meeting, which lasted about two hours, came as a joint U.S.-Iranian-Iraqi committee held its first meeting on security issues. Embassy spokesman Reeker said that meeting lasted four hours and was "frank and serious."
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said the meeting focused on dealing with al Qaida in Iraq, a Sunni extremist group that's thought to be behind some of the most spectacular attacks in Iraq. The embassy's counselor for political and military affairs, Marcie B. Ries, the former U.S. ambassador to Albania, led the U.S. delegation.
IRNA, Iran's official news agency, said the Iranian delegation had accused the U.S. of "intentional support for notorious elements and giving terrorists a free hand in certain parts of Iraq."
The news agency didn't offer specifics, but the Maliki government has complained about recent U.S. support for Sunni insurgents who've agreed to turn against al Qaida in Iraq but remain opposed to the Shiite-led Iraqi government.