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Main Sunni bloc boycotts Iraq government talks

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BAGHDAD, Feb 23 (Reuters) Iraq's main Sunni Muslim bloc pulled out of talks today on the formation of a new government, blaming the ruling Shi'ite alliance for sectarian violence that has killed dozens of Sunnis in the past 24 hours.

The sectarian tensions sparked by an attack on a Shi'ite shrine yesterday occurred at a critical time for Iraq, as fractious politicians struggle to form a new government two months after elections for the first full-term parliament.

''We are suspending our participation in negotiations on the government with the Shi'ite Alliance,'' Tareq al-Hashemi, a senior official of the Iraqi Accordance Front, told reporters.

The negotiations have been mired in sectarian differences, prompting the U.S. ambassador to warn that Washington had spent too much tax-payers' money in Iraq to tolerate sectarianism and militias in government.

It was not clear if broader talks would now go ahead without the presence of the Accordance Front, which includes the Iraqi Islamic Party. The Front won 44 of 275 seats when the once dominant Sunni minority ended its boycott of the U.S.-sponsored political process and took part in the December elections.

STAY AWAY The Accordance Front stayed away from a meeting at President Jalal Talabani's house today designed to calm tensions, blaming the Shi'ite-led government for failing to protect Sunnis and their places of worship.

''If the price of participating in the political process is the blood of our people, then we are willing to go back on this.

This atmosphere does not help the resumption of negotiations,'' said Accordance Front spokesman Thafer al-Aani.

Dozens of people, mostly Sunnis, were killed in Baghdad and elsewhere after the bombing of the Shi'ite shrine in Samarra, police said. Dozens of Sunni mosques were also attacked and Shi'ite militias took to the streets.

Aani said the bloc would resume talks only if those who incited and participated in the violence officially apologised, compensation was paid for damaged mosques, perpetrators were brought to justice and the militias behind them held to account.

The Accordance Front also demanded a pledge there would be no repeat of the violence.

The Arab League, meeting in Cairo at ambassador level, condemned attacks on mosques and the killing of innocent people and called for restraint by all political and religious leaders in Iraq.

''The council calls on them to ... thwart all attempts and criminal plans against the unity, security and stability of Iraq, and to stand in the way of all those who try to plant the seeds of strife among the Iraqi people,'' it said in a statement.

REUTERS TM HS2317

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