BAGHDAD — Tensions flared Sunday in Iraq's ruling Kurdish-Shiite alliance as a spokesman for the Kurdish president's political party suggested that the Shiite prime minister should step down.
"The time has come for the United Iraqi Alliance and the Kurdistan coalition to study Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari's stepping aside," said Azad Jundiyani, a spokesman for President Jalal Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan.
Jundiyani's remarks came a day after Talabani and Masood Barzani, head of the other main Kurdish party, sent a letter to Jafari complaining that the Shiite bloc was neglecting their alliance, cutting Kurds out of decisions, monopolizing ministerial appointments and discriminating against Sunni Arab Muslims.
Talabani and Barzani also said Jafari had not worked hard enough to resettle Kurds in the northern city of Kirkuk, from where they had been ousted under Saddam Hussein's regime. In addition, they accused Jafari of preventing Sunni Arabs from participating in the political process and demanded that he cease the formation of "shadow ministries" -- parallel government departments that are dominated by Shiites.
"We think Jafari is making his decisions alone," said Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish member of the transitional National Assembly. "They are supposed to have regular meetings with us, and Talabani is saying that is not happening."
Jawad Maliki, a high ranking member of the Shiite bloc, rejected the suggestion that Jafari should step down.
"It is a very dangerous and critical thing to speak about Jafari's resignation," he said. "Such talk is unacceptable especially if you would look at the situation Iraq is passing through now." Iraq continues to be beset by insurgent violence as the government prepares for a national referendum on a new constitution.
Maliki said that any disagreements between the two blocs should be worked out through dialogue and that the alliance must be preserved for the sake of Iraqi stability. Kurds have about 75 seats in the 275-member assembly; the Shiite bloc controls 140.
Saadoun Zubaidi, a Sunni Arab politician, said the clash was a sign of Iraq's dysfunctional leadership and its inability to bring diverse interests into accord. "How can you have a [functioning] political process when the president is accusing the prime minister of violating the law?" he asked. "It's the law of the jungle."
Some observers say it may be that Talabani is hardening his position in a bid to emphasize his independence ahead of assembly elections scheduled for December.
"One thing we have to keep in mind is the possibility of the bluff," said Wayne White, former head of the State Department's Iraq Intelligence team. "Surely they don't expect Jafari to step down -- it's being thrown out there to give the Kurds something to trade. But that's not to say that they don't really have serious disagreements."
In another move that may spur tension among Iraq's political groups, parliament voted Sunday to alter the rules of the constitutional election. It decided that in order for the draft to be defeated, two-thirds of registered voters -- rather than two-thirds of those who cast ballots -- in three provinces must vote against it.
The change is likely to anger Sunni Arabs who have been campaigning for a "no" vote.
In Al Anbar province, U.S. Marine officials Sunday reported the death of 12 insurgents as Operation Iron Fist continued. A spokesman for the militant group Al Qaeda in Iraq made an Internet statement that it had kidnapped two members of a U.S. military patrol in the province. U.S. officials rejected the claim as baseless.
In Baqubah, 35 miles north of Baghdad, insurgents attacked an Iraqi army checkpoint, killing three soldiers. And members of cleric Muqtada Sadr's militia said they had secured the release of Interior Minister Bayan Jabr's brother, who was kidnapped in the capital Saturday.
Times staff writers Suhail Ahmed and Louise Roug in Baghdad, and special correspondents in Baqubah and Baghdad, contributed to this report.