ANKARA, Turkey - A top Iraqi Shiite official said Thursday that the political crisis pitting Shiite officials against his country's largest Sunni-backed bloc must end.

But Ammar al-Hakim, a powerful cleric and leader of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, did not offer any change in the legal challenge that started the standoff: An arrest warrant that Iraq's Shiite-led government filed against the Sunni vice-president, Tareq al-Hashemi, on terrorism charges, sending him into virtual exile to the Kurdish autonomous region in northern Iraq.

Al-Hashemi's Sunni-backed Iraqiya bloc has responded by boycotting Iraq's parliament and Cabinet sessions, bringing government work to a standstill. Al-Hashemi denies charges of running death squads that targeted Shiite officials and refuses to return for trial in Baghdad.

"I want to invite Iraqiya to return to parliament and take its place in parliament," al-Hakim said during his visit to Turkey. "We say that we will examine their just demands and do whatever is necessary."

Al-Hakim said that an administration run by members of only one sect was impossible, but he didn't say what Iraq's government should do to end the crisis.

A month after the U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq, violence has surged during its escalating political crisis, and this has raised concerns in neighbouring Turkey, which has been dealing with an insurrection by its Kurdish minority since 1984, with some Kurdish guerrillas based in northern Iraq.

Turkey, whose population is mostly Sunni, has criticized Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, regarding the standoff. He has replied by accusing Turkey of interfering in Iraqi affairs.

"We can't remain silent, if you start a process of sectarian conflict," Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said of al-Maliki on Wednesday.

Al-Hakim also was scheduled to meet Erdogan and Turkish President Abdullah Gul later Thursday.

Sunnis fear that Iraq's Shiite-led government will try to do push aside their leaders one by one, as al-Maliki tries to cement his own grip on power.

Last week, the leader of the Sunni-backed Iraqiya bloc, Ayad Allawi, accused al-Maliki, a Shiite, of unfairly targeting Sunni officials and deliberately triggering the political crisis. Allawi, also a Shiite, said Iraq needs a new prime minister or new elections to prevent the country from disintegrating along sectarian lines.

The Iraqi government crisis has intensified sectarian resentments that have remained raw in Iraq since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion unleashed fierce fighting between Sunni and Shiite militias battling for dominance and killing tens of thousands civilians on both sides of the sectarian divide just a few years ago.


Sinan Salaheddin in Baghdad contributed.

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