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Iraq's Shiite leader blames Sunni vice president for stalemate

BAGHDAD — A rift in the highest levels of Iraq's government widened Tuesday and threatened to undermine U.S. efforts to unite the fractious central government behind compromises on distributing oil revenues and other key issues.

In an interview with an Iraqi newspaper, Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, a Shiite Muslim, accused the country's Sunni vice president of blocking key legislation approved by Iraq's Shiite-dominated parliament. Maliki also suggested that the parliament's largest Sunni bloc, the Iraqi Accordance Front, isn't representative of the country's Sunni minority.

"There are 26 laws that are blocked in the presidency council, and it is the vice president, Tariq al Hashemi, who is blocking them," Maliki said in the interview, which was published Tuesday in the Dar al Hayat newspaper.

Maliki didn't elaborate on the 26 laws to which he was referring. Hashemi could not be reached for comment.

Meanwhile, an Iraqi military spokesman said that authorities were still holding 43 foreigners who were detained Monday after private security guards shot and wounded a girl in Baghdad's Karrada district. The spokesman raised the possibility that authorities might use the case to test a U.S. decree that grants private security contractors immunity for their actions under Iraqi law.

"The law will deal with it as would any law in any country," said Qassim Atta, the spokesman for Baghdad's security forces. "Nothing stands in the way of the law."

He said that the convoy the guards were protecting was traveling on the wrong side of the road when the girl was shot. He said that charges could range from driving on the wrong side of the street to firing weapons randomly.

He said 12 of those detained were security guards and the other 31 were passengers in the convoy, which was operated by ALMCO, a Dubai company with several U.S. reconstruction contracts.

Maliki's latest verbal flare-up comes as U.S. officials are urging Iraqi leaders to use a relative lull in violence to broker peace among the country's rival Shiite and Sunni Arabs and Kurds and to act more quickly to address the country's key issues.

"It is very important that Iraqi leaders continue to work toward reconciliation, work toward taking the important steps required to move things forward now that the security situation has allowed that to happen," Phil Reeker, the top spokesman for the U.S. Embassy, said Sunday.

Maliki's combativeness, however, hasn't helped that process. He's been openly critical of other top officials, including the three who make up Iraq's presidency council, Hashemi; President Jalal Talibani, a Kurd; and Vice President Adel Abdulmehdi, a Shiite political rival. The three must approve all legislation before it can be enacted.

At a recent news conference, Maliki also blasted the presidency council for refusing to ratify execution orders for three high-profile former henchmen of Saddam Hussein, a Sunni, who were convicted of orchestrating the murder of 180,000 Iraqi Kurds.

In the interview, Maliki, a member of the Shiite Dawa Party, criticized those, including Hashemi, who've accused him of promoting sectarianism.

"We do not believe in sectarianism, and we have proved that this government is not sectarian because it has used one standard to deal with all citizens and it has stood against wrongdoers, whether Shia or Sunni," he said.

Maliki also reiterated his support for a federal system that would give semi-autonomy to the Shiite-dominated regions in southern Iraq and to the Kurdish north, which contain most of Iraq's oil. But he warned that, "Without proper preparation, it could lead to instability and internal conflict and even to division."

(Calvan reports for The Sacramento Bee. Leila Fadel and McClatchy Special correspondent Sahar Issa contributed to this report.)