BAGHDAD — The Iraqi government's national reconciliation efforts suffered a new setback Wednesday as the main Sunni political bloc announced it has suspended talks on ending its boycott because of disagreements over a Cabinet post.
The dispute flared on the eve of a key U.N. conference in Sweden where Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was expected to face pressure to shore up recent security gains by making progress on the political front, including reconciliation among Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds.
The Sunni Accordance Front's leader, Adnan al-Dulaimi, said the decision was triggered by al-Maliki's refusal to let the bloc resume the leadership of the key Planning Ministry.
"The talks yielded nothing and the government's response was not in line with our demands so we have decided to suspend them," al-Dulaimi said.
Shiite lawmaker Ali al-Adeeb, who is close to the prime minister, played down concerns about the decision.
"I do not think it is a big step backward and I do not think it will lead to the total withdrawal of the Accordance Front from the government. The government has agreed on most of the names given by the Accordance Front," he said.
The Sunni bloc, which comprises three parties that hold 44 of the 275 parliamentary seats, pulled its members out of the 39-member Cabinet in August, saying they were not getting enough say in decision-making.
Followers of the Shiite anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al-Sadr also left the government last year after the prime minister refused their demands for a timetable for the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq.
Sunni politicians said last month that they were negotiating a possible return, apparently swayed by al-Maliki's crackdown against Shiite militias that focused on al-Sadr's feared Mahdi Army militia.
The prime minister, himself a Shiite, expressed optimism on April 25, saying he expected to be ready to present a new Cabinet list "within a few days."
But Sunni officials said a deal was held up by internal disagreements over who should hold which posts. When the Accordance Front withdrew from the government, they had five Cabinet posts, plus a vice premiership.
On Wednesday, al-Dulaimi said the bloc decided to suspend talks after al-Maliki offered them the Communications Ministry instead of the Planning Ministry, which is considered a more influential portfolio because it oversees economic and human development projects.
"The Communications Ministry has no value in contrary to the planning one," al-Dulaimi told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. "We need at least one key portfolio or two service ministries."
The Planning Ministry also is of symbolic importance to the Accordance Front because it is currently led by Ali Baban, a former member of the Sunni bloc who was expelled after he broke ranks over the boycott and returned to his post.
The only other Sunni in the Cabinet, Defense Minister Abdul-Qader al-Obeidi, is an independent who remained in his post throughout.
Al-Adeeb said the government couldn't in good conscience oust Baban "because he stood with the government and sided with the national interest when he refused to quit."
With so many Cabinet posts vacant, al-Maliki has struggled to keep together the disparate factions of his government and reconcile feuding Shiite and Sunni politicians.
U.S. troops, meanwhile, captured eight suspected insurgents, including a man believed to be a longtime al-Qaida in Iraq leader who was involved in a June 30 attack on American forces in a remote area in Anbar province known as Donkey Island, the military said.
The fierce 23-hour battle at Donkey Island left two Americans dead, along with 35 insurgents. The suspect was captured along with three others Tuesday in Baghdad, the military said.
Four other men believed to have links to senior al-Qaida in Iraq leaders were captured Wednesday in Mosul, according to the statement.
South of Baghdad, the U.S. military returned 101 Iraqi detainees home to the Mahmoudiyah area _ a former insurgent stronghold that has seen a sharp drop in violence _ after they were released from the Camp Bucca detention center. Tribal leaders greeted the men, including one who sat in a wheelchair.
Sporadic gunbattles broke out in a Shiite stronghold in southeastern Baghdad as detentions and raids against al-Sadr's followers continue to strain a truce that ended nearly two months of fierce clashes in the capital.
The U.S. military said 10 suspected Shiite extremists were killed after they were spotted planting roadside bombs and conducting other militant activities.
Iraqi police officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to release the information, said three civilians were killed and five others wounded in the fighting.
Associated Press writers Sinan Salaheddin and Bushra Juhi contributed to this report.