Saleh Al Mutlaq Image Credit: AP

Baghdad: Iraq's Sunni deputy premier has called for Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki to step down and warned that the country's festering political crisis risks sparking a wider sectarian conflict in the region.

Deputy Prime Minister Saleh Al Mutlaq stood by an earlier charge that Iraq is becoming a new dictatorship under Al Maliki, a Shiite. He said Iraqis could eventually rise up violently if Al Maliki remains in his post, and pushed for a parliamentary vote of no-confidence in the prime minister if he remains in office. "The longer Al Maliki stays in power, the higher the possibility of a divided Iraq," Al Mutlaq said during an interview at his office in Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone.

A spokesman for Al Maliki dismissed Al Mutlaq's comments, saying they are "not worthy of a response".

Arrest demanded

Al Mutlaq's Sunni-backed Iraqiya party has been boycotting parliament and Cabinet meetings since last month to protest what it sees as efforts by Al Maliki to consolidate power, particularly over state security forces.

Al Maliki's government, meanwhile, has demanded the arrest of the country's top Sunni politician, Vice-President Tarek Al Hashemi of Iraqiya, accusing him of running a hit squad targeting government officials.

Al Hashemi denies the allegations. He remains holed up in Iraq's semi-autonomous northern Kurdish region. He is staying as a guest of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, and is effectively out of reach of security forces under Baghdad's control.

The boycott and standoff over Al Hashemi has paralysed Iraq's government, and pits the leaders of the country's mostly ethnic- and sectarian-based blocs against each other.

"The whole region is going to pay the price of the chaos that may occur in Iraq" if the political crisis continues and Al Maliki retains power, Al Mutlaq said. "Maybe what Iran wants to do is have the Arabs in Iraq fight [other Sunni-dominated Arab states] on behalf of their regime."