Radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's parliamentary bloc suspended its participation in the Iraqi government Wednesday in protest at Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's impending meeting with the US president.
Parliamentarians from the movement handed out a statement at their Sadr City headquarters just hours after the prime minister arrived in Amman to discuss the mounting crisis in Iraq with the US President George W. Bush.
"The Sadr group suspends its membership in the parliament and in the cabinet as a protest against the visit which is considered a provocation to the Iraqi people," the statement said.
Sadr's bloc, the largest in parliament with 30 seats, stopped short of formally withdrawing from the government, leaving the way open to eventually patch up their relations with the premier.
But the departure of Sadr's party, which has wide support in Iraq's majority Shiite community, is a severe blow to the stability and the credibility of the tottering national unity regime.
In the holy city of Najaf, senior Sadr aide Sahib al-Ameri, confirmed that the cleric had approved the provisional withdrawal of his six ministers from the government and lawmakers from parliament.
"We call on all the parliamentary blocs to exert pressure on Prime Minister Maliki so that he does not kneel before the demands of Bush," he said.
The announcement came as Baghdad resounded with the sounds of gunfire and explosions, while US helicopter gunships clattered over the city, in the continuing spiral of violence that many are now likening to a civil war.
Maliki's relationship with the Sadr's bloc, which was key to his accession to power, has been coming under increasing scrutiny not just in Iraq but around the Arab world.
"Most Sunni Muslim Arab countries believe that Maliki and members of his government are tolerant of, and even connive with, Shiite militias, especially (Sadr's) Mahdi Army," a Jordanian official said on condition of anonymity.
"The Maliki government is ignoring the security violations of these militias," the official said, hours before Jordan's King Abdullah II was due to host a crucial summit between Maliki and Bush in Amman.
There have been doubts on the American side as well, with a leaked memo from the US national security advisor, Stephen Hadley, questioning the premier's ability to bring the security situation under control.
The United States needs "to determine if Prime Minister Maliki is both willing and able to rise above the sectarian agendas being promoted by others", reads the memo, according to the New York Times.
For months, US forces have wanted to enter the militia's stronghold of Sadr City to crush the power of these armed groups.
But the prime minister has specifically blocked them, in apparent deference to Sadr, and his insisted on a political solution to the standoff.
The blasts in Sadr City last week, however, that claimed more than 200 lives and are believed to be the work of Sunni insurgents, are expected only to harden the stance of the militias.
In their statement, the Sadr bloc actually accused the US forces of being complicit in the attacks.
In the city of Samarra, a suicide bomber rammed his car through the front gates of a police station Wednesday before being stopped by a hail of bullets from officers.
The car then exploded killing four policemen and wounding three.
Just to the south, a gang of some 40 gunmen attacked a police checkpoint, killing two policemen and wounding two others. The two attacks prompted the immediate imposition of a total curfew for several hours in the city.
Meanwhile in Baghdad, insurgents tried to storm the government's pensions department near the notorious Sunni-dominated Haifa Street in central Baghdad.
"They clashed with the guards and killed four of them. Soon after US troops arrived at the site and dispelled the attack," a security official said.
The day began with a bomb blast next to a major metropolitan bus station that killed two civilians and was only the first in a series of attacks in the capital.
A suicide car bomb smashed into a National Police checkpoint in the south of the city, killing one policeman and wounding three others, as well as four civilians.
Another suicide car bomb targeted police near the middle-class Karrada district, wounding seven people, including three policemen, while a car bomb in front of a hospital elsewhere in Karrada killed two others and wounded five.
Eight people were killed in a series of shootings in the restive eastern province of Diyala, while another three died from an insurgent attack in the oil rich northern of Kirkuk.
In Mosul, a car bomb close to a police station in the center of the city killed a civilian and injured 20 others, said Colonel Abdel Karim al-Juburi of the Mosul police.
The US military also reported killing two Iraqi women on Wednesday during early morning clashes with insurgents near the restive city of Baquba, north of Baghdad.
After taking heavy fire from a suspected insurgent hideout, the US army called in an aircraft which opened fire on the building killing eight insurgents as well as the two women.
The incident comes just a day after US soldiers in Ramadi responded to an insurgent attack with several tank shells which killed a suspected insurgent but also five girls, ranging in age from an infant to a teenager.
Two US soldiers were killed in separate incidents, the military said Wednesday, bringing the number of US servicemen killed in Iraq since the March 2003 invasion to 2,879, according to Pentagon figures.