Baghdad: Iraq's Sunni deputy premier called on Saturday for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to step down and warned that the country's festering political crisis risks 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".

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 Tariq 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 semiautonomous 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.

Unlike many other Iraqi parties, Iraqiya is nonsectarian, though it depends heavily on support from Sunnis.

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 party blocs against each other.

Iraq's Sunni minority dominated the government under the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, but since he was overthrown, Shiites have controlled government.

The political feuding has been accompanied by a recent string of bloody attacks, raising fears of a new sectarian rift that could destabilise Iraq now that US troops have left the country. Many fear the crisis will push Iraq toward a renewal of the large-scale sectarian fighting that pushed the country to the brink of civil war in 2006-7.

(Agencies)