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Iraqi leader rejects Sunni resignations

US announces deaths of four more soldiers

BAGHDAD -- Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki refused yesterday to accept the resignations of six Cabinet members, keeping open the door for a possible return of Sunni ministers whose departure last week caused a crisis in his unity government.

Members of the Sunni bloc known as the Iraqi Accordance Front, or Tawafiq in Arabic, said Maliki's action would not affect their decision. But a senior member said a resolution could be reached at an upcoming summit of leaders of Iraq's main ethnic and religious blocs.

The US military, meanwhile, announced the deaths of four soldiers. At least 3,669 US personnel

have been killed since the start of the Iraq war in 2003, according to the website icasualties.org, which tracks military casualties.

US Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said the troop buildup completed in June was beginning to improve security but blamed Iraqi politicians for failing to pass legislation aimed at reconciliation.

He expressed disappointment at the Sunni withdrawal from the Cabinet, as well as Parliament's decision to take the month of August off. He told NBC's "Meet the Press" that he had urged the country's presidency council, which consists of its president and two vice presidents, not to follow Parliament's example.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told "Fox News Sunday" that "the leadership is not on recess, and the presidency council and the prime minister are still working." But she said the Bush administration had told the Iraqis that they needed to work harder.

US officials, under pressure to show progress in a report to be delivered in Congress on Sept. 15, had hoped that giving Iraq's Sunni Arab minority a stake in the government would foster reconciliation with the majority Shi'ite Muslims.

President Jalal Talabani, an ethnic Kurd who has been leading efforts to save the unity government, said Maliki had informed him of his decision to reject the resignations during a meeting yesterday that also included Vice President Adil Abdul-Mahdi, a Shi'ite.

Sunni Vice President Tariq Hashemi, who has complained of being sidelined by Maliki and other Shi'ite leaders, was not invited.

At issue is what Tawafiq considers to be the refusal of the dominant Shi'ite alliance to treat Sunni Arabs as equal partners in the government. Some of Maliki's closest aides accuse Tawafiq of links to the insurgency.

Deputy Prime Minister Salam Zikam Ali Zubaie and five other Sunni ministers withdrew from the Cabinet on Wednesday, citing the government's failure to respond to a long list of demands, including the release of detainees not charged with specific crimes, respect for human rights, the disbanding of private militias, and the involvement of all major parties in security decisions.

In violence yesterday, a mortar barrage in southeast Baghdad killed at least 13 people and injured 17, police said.

Some of the shells landed at a gas station, where many of the victims were lined up, causing a fireball that engulfed at least 15 cars, police said.

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