BAGHDAD: American government is deeply concerned after the Shiite-dominated government in Iraq ordered the arrest of the Sunni vice president, accusing him of running a death squad that assassinated police officers and government officials.
The sensational charges drew a worried response from Washington and brought Iraq's tenuous partnership government to the edge of collapse on Monday. A Sunni-backed political coalition said its ministers would walk off their jobs, leaving adrift agencies that handle Iraq's finances, schools and agriculture.
Washington has urged calm, but Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki threatened to replace ministers of the Sunni-backed Iraqiya bloc if they do not end a cabinet boycott, as Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi, holed up in the autonomous Kurdish region, rejected claims he ran a death squad.
Lawmakers are also due to consider a call from Maliki to sack Sunni Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlak, who has decried the Shiite-led national unity government as a "dictatorship."

The crisis comes just days after US troops completed their withdrawal, leaving behind what US President Barack Obama described as a "sovereign, stable, and self-reliant Iraq."

"We call for the government of the Kurdistan region to... hand over Hashemi to the justice system," Maliki told a Baghdad news conference. "We do not accept any interference in Iraqi justice."

Maliki also rejected Hashemi's calls for Arab League representatives to
observe the investigation and any questioning, telling reporters: "We gave the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein a fair trial, and we will ensure that a fair trial will also be given to Hashemi," referring to the now-executed Saddam.

He also warned Hashemi and Mutlak's Iraqiya bloc that he would replace the group's nine cabinet ministers if they continued to boycott government sessions.

"Ministers have no right to suspend their membership in the government because they will be considered resigned," Maliki said. "In the next cabinet
meeting, if they do not come back, we will appoint replacements."

He added that "if we don't succeed to reach an agreement, we will move towards forming a majority government," as opposed to the current national unity cabinet.

Iraqiya, which has not pulled out of the government, holds 82 of the 325 seats in parliament and controls nine ministerial posts. Earlier it said it was suspending its participation in the legislature.

The bloc, which garnered most of its support from the Sunni minority and emerged with the most seats in March 2010 elections, was out-manoeuvred for the premiership by Maliki who finished second in the polls.

Maliki's remarks came after he spoke by telephone to US Vice President Joe Biden, who urged him to work with other parties to resolve the worsening crisis that threatens Iraq's fragile political truce.

Biden spoke with Maliki and parliament speaker Osama al-Nujaifi, and
"stressed the urgent need for the prime minister and the leaders of the other major blocs to meet and work through their differences together," the White House said. (AFP)