WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The speaker of Iraq's parliament warned on Friday that upcoming elections might be used to further marginalize already-frustrated Sunni Muslims, who have chafed against what they call unfair treatment from the country's Shi'ite prime minister.
Usama al-Nujaifi, a Sunni, said in an interview during a visit to Washington that he feared attempts to discourage voting or "provoke the situation" in Sunni areas, or to sideline certain would-be candidates, were designed "to weaken Sunni representation in parliament."
He also warned that poor security could pose problems for the parliamentary polls, scheduled for April 30.
"If the security conditions worsen, the elections could be postponed (or) if they are held, they will take place under inappropriate conditions," he said.
Nujaifi held talks this week with President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and other senior U.S. officials, as violence appears to be spilling into Iraq from the war in neighbouring Syria, and as tensions grow between Iraq's Sunnis and Shi'ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.
This week, Maliki warned he may take military action against al Qaeda-linked militants in mostly Sunni Anbar province.
While U.S. officials say they are encouraged by Maliki's cooperation with some Sunni tribesmen there, the conflict in Anbar - once a symbol of the U.S. military success in Iraq - has heightened fears about Iraq's trajectory two years after the United States completed its military drawdown.
While Nujaifi described meetings with U.S. officials as positive, he also spoke of "neglect" following the U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq at the end of 2011, as the Obama administration has turned toward the war in Afghanistan, the challenges of the Arab Spring, and the growing crisis in Syria.
The United States has sought to staunch instability in Iraq in part by speeding up delivery of missiles, surveillance drones
and other weapons that could help Iraqi forces fight off a resurgent militant threat.
"We have been and we continue to work with the government of Iraq at very high levels," a U.S. State Department official said on condition of anonymity.
POSSIBLE THIRD TERM
Nujaifi and other Sunnis have complained that Maliki has applied laws selectively and has systematically undermined the position of Sunnis, who dominated majority-Shi'ite Iraq under former President Saddam Hussein. Maliki denies such charges.
Still, Iraqi voters could hand Maliki a third term in April. The U.S. official said that Iraq had held numerous elections since 2003 that were deemed largely fair and transparent despite some complaints.
As those polls approach, Nujaifi called on the Obama administration to ensure that the United States' long, costly effort to build a democracy in Iraq was not in vain.
"What we have now is a facade of a democracy - superficial - but on the inside it's total chaos," Nujaifi said, warning of the consequences of further instability.
"If the country doesn't return to the right path, it could descend into something that resembles Syria. There might be sectarian killing, there might be partition - big catastrophes."
The U.S. official said Washington continued to press Iraq leaders to do more themselves to end political disagreements, which have often broken down along sectarian or ethnic lines.
"These are long-standing issues that were in Iraq before 2003 and are still there today," the official said.
"They aren't solved in a day, a month, a year, or a decade. These are issues that are generational, that Iraqis from all sides need to sit down and address effectively with long-term solutions."
(Edited by Alistair Bell and Matthew Lewis)