Baghdad -- At least four more ministers announced a boycott of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's beleaguered government yesterday, deepening the crisis sparked less than a week ago by the withdrawal of six Sunni Muslim Cabinet members.
Almost half of al-Maliki's Cabinet - 17 ministers - have withdrawn or boycotted, citing the prime minister's unwillingness to include them in major decisions or make concessions to meet demands to curb Shiite Muslim militias and release Sunni prisoners held without charges.
Meanwhile, five U.S. soldiers were killed yesterday: four in an explosion in Diyala Province, and one when an armor-penetrating device exploded in western Baghdad. Another soldier was killed Sunday in eastern Baghdad, the U.S. military said.
The deaths brought to 3,674 the number of American troops killed since the March 2003 invasion, according to an Associated Press count.
The ministers who announced the walkout are secular Sunnis from the Iraqi National List slate, the fourth-largest in parliament. The slate is led by former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, a secular Shiite and former exile who has opposed al-Maliki's government. They announced the boycott after skipping a ministers' meeting yesterday morning. The Cabinet still had 21 of 37 members, giving it a quorum to meet and vote, a spokesman for the prime minister said.
The Iraqi National List ministers are protesting al-Maliki's "policy of marginalization," according to Saleem Abdullah Juboori, a member of parliament with the Sunni National Accordance Front, or Tawafiq, which withdrew its ministers on Wednesday. Tawafiq cited the same unmet demands noted in Monday's boycott.
The bloc loyal to Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr withdrew its six ministers from the cabinet in April after leaders failed to present a timetable for U.S. forces' withdrawal from Iraq.
Juboori said the next few weeks will be al-Maliki's "last chance to show goodwill" and negotiate with the absent ministers. He is expected to attend a leadership summit soon that will include national leaders and heads of political blocs.
If al-Maliki fails to reach out to the marginalized ministers, Juboori said, Tawafiq is already in talks with Iraqiya, Kurdish and Shiite politicians from al-Maliki's own bloc to bring a vote of no confidence against him.
But al-Maliki does not plan to negotiate with ministers who have left the Cabinet, spokesman Basam Ridha said. Instead, al-Maliki was talking yesterday with the Iraqi National Accord about replacing the absent ministers through special elections.
"Obviously, it's a concern," that the ministers withdrew and boycotted the cabinet, Ridha said. "But maybe we don't need a minister with a party that's going to withdraw. Maybe this will give the prime minister a chance to find elected members who will do their job," he said.
"If they do not wish to serve, no problem: We will find somebody else to replace them."
U.S., Iranian and Iraqi officials gathered in Baghdad yesterday for the first meeting of a technical subcommittee on improving security in Iraq.
U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker later continued security discussions with his Iranian counterpart and Iraqi National Security Advisor Mowaffak Rubaie, U.S. Embassy spokesman Lou Fintor said.
Fintor characterized today's meeting as "frank and serious." He said the three sides had agreed to meet again.
At least 35 people were killed, including 15 children, when a suicide bomber blew up an explosives-laden truck yesterday on the eastern outskirts of the northern city of Tall Afar, 240 miles northwest of Baghdad, officials said.
The force of the explosion collapsed numerous homes in the densely populated area that is home to Shiites and Turkmen, said Tall Afar Mayor Nejim Abdalla Jubouri. He estimated the truck was packed with about two tons of explosives, concealed by gravel.
No group had claimed responsibility for the bombing late yesterday, but Jubouri said he suspects insurgents targeted Shiites. He said the explosion killed Sunnis and Shiites, Arabs and Kurds.
In other violence yesterday, a roadside bomb exploded at the foot of Diyala Bridge, a span linking two Shiite neighborhoods in East Baghdad. At least nine people were killed and eight injured, police said.
Police found 17 bodies dumped in the capital.
Police in the city of Baqubah reported the discovery of 60 decomposing bodies buried on the outskirts of the city in Diyala province.
Molly Hennessy-Fiske and Alexandra Zavis write for the Los Angeles Times.