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Iraqi government in deepest crisis

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The gravity of the situation was underscored by several officials. "We have a governmental crisis. Our people expect better performance," said Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari.

And since Saturday, US Ambassador Ryan Crocker has been shuttling between Iraq's top leaders, but an embassy spokesperson said this was not necessarily indicative of a crisis.

"The surge has done well in making a difference in security conditions. But it isn't a light switch for reconciliation; there are no quick fixes to years of bitterness and violence," he said.

Some US military officers have expressed concern privately that Iraq's leadership has failed to take advantage of some of the breathing room offered by the US-led surge against insurgents and militants.

The crisis is also fueling discontent and alienation among Iraqis.

"They are making us regret we ever voted for them ... they should learn something about unity from our soccer team," said an anonymous caller on a state television program on Wednesday after Iraq's victory over South Korea in the Asian Cup semifinals.

Iraq's two rounds of elections in 2005 were historic in many ways. They empowered once-marginalized Shiites and Kurds, but the experience also enshrined and even codified in the new Constitution a consensus-based system that is built on a delicate division of authority along sectarian and ethnic lines.

This was meant mainly to accommodate the embittered Sunni Arabs who were slow to embrace the political process and continue to fuel a violent insurgency that has spiraled into a bloody sectarian war.

But 14 months after Maliki, a Shiite, formed his so-called government of national unity, Iraq's quest for democracy has hit a wall. Political leaders, mainly Shiites and Sunnis, are now trading a barrage of very serious recriminations.

"The partnership experience has been dealt major blows ... we tried to maintain our good intentions and patience ... but we have been faced with arrogance, a monopoly over power, and efforts to eliminate [us] in every way," said Khalaf al-Olayan from the Iraqi Accordance Front at a press conference announcing the suspension of six cabinet members from the government.

If they pull out, it would bring to 12 the number of vacancies in Maliki's 39-member cabinet.

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