Iraqi Assembly Opens Talks

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Ali Haider/European Pressphoto Agency

Members of the new Iraqi national assembly chatted before the opening session Wednesday. Expectations raised by the meeting, weeks after the first free elections in decades, were tempered by the continuing failure of political leaders to agree on a functioning government

Iraqi Assembly Opens as Talks Over a Government Drag On

By EDWARD WONG

BAGHDAD, Iraq, March 16 – The country’s first freely elected parliament in a half-century met for the first time on Wednesday in the heart of the capital, just after a volley of mortar rounds rained down on the surrounding area.

The expectations raised by the meeting of the national assembly, coming nearly seven weeks after many Iraqis defied insurgent threats to cast their ballots, were tempered somewhat by the continuing failure to install a functioning government. As talks have dragged on, the confidence of ordinary Iraqis in their elected leaders has faded as steadily as the campaign posters still lining the streets.

The divisiveness of the negotiations was evident on Wednesday, when the assembly failed to take even the formal first step of appointing a president, two vice presidents and a speaker of the assembly.

Nevertheless, members of the 275-seat assembly marched into the fortresslike convention center in the heavily fortified Green Zone with a solemnity that bespoke the historic nature of the occasion and the gravity of the task still at hand. They submitted to body searches before picking up name tags at a reception desk, then sat down in a vast auditorium for more than an hour to listen to speeches and take the oath of office.

They represented the full range of Iraqi society, with elderly clerics in black turbans sitting alongside Western-educated men in pinstriped suits and women in full-length robes.

From the impassioned speeches it was evident that the Iraqis saw themselves at a turning point, nearly two years after the American-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein. They will now assume more responsibility for their affairs, beyond the caretaker government of Prime Minister Ayad Allawi.

Their most powerful leaders will be drawn from the groups that received the greatest and second-greatest number of votes in the elections on Jan. 30, the Shiite Arabs and the Kurds, who both were oppressed by Mr. Hussein, a Sunni Arab.

After appointing a government, the assembly will turn to its main job of drafting a constitution, a task that will raise the thorniest political issues facing the country: the legal role of Islam, the definition of federal powers and the balance of power among different ethnic groups and religious sects.

In interviews before and after the assembly meeting, Shiite and Kurdish leaders gave wildly varying estimates of when they might strike a deal on a government. Ibrahim al-Jaafari, the Shiite nominee for prime minister, said it would take one or two weeks, while another senior Shiite politician, Hussain al-Shahristani, said a deal would be reached "in a few days’ time."

The Kurds are pushing the Shiites to give specific guarantees of the rapid restoration of Kurdish property in the oil city of Kirkuk and the retention of strong autonomous powers, including the right to keep a militia. The Shiites would rather put off such issues until the writing of the permanent constitution, due by August, or even afterward.

The jockeying has left ordinary Iraqis feeling increasingly disillusioned.

"I thought all our problems would be solved after the elections, since those parties now in disagreement pushed very hard to hold the elections," said Sami Alwan, 27, a technology graduate student in Baghdad. "But I didn’t know the differences among them were so deep. The only loser in this dispute is the Iraqi people."

The Shiite bloc, called the United Iraqi Alliance, has 140 seats in the assembly, followed by the Kurdistan Alliance with 75 seats. Together they have enough seats to get the two-thirds vote necessary to install a president and two vice presidents, who would then appoint a prime minister.

Almost all of the speakers on Wednesday called for unity, saying full engagement of all groups in Iraq – including the Sunni Arabs, who are leading the insurgency – was needed to stabilize the country. The Shiites and Kurds have in recent weeks spoken with Sunni leaders about taking prominent positions in the government.

"The national assembly must embody the will of the Arabs and the Kurds as well as other minorities in Iraq to build a country that is devoid of oppression and sectarianism," said Jalal Talabani, the Kurdish nominee for president.

Yet the speeches all revealed the deep ethnic or sectarian loyalties of their speakers. Fuad Massum, the head of the interim parliament under Dr. Allawi and a senior Kurd, mentioned that the assembly meeting was taking place on the anniversary of the Halabja massacre of 1988, in which Mr. Hussein’s military used chemical weapons to kill thousands of Kurds in the northern town of Halabja.

Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, the leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a powerful Shiite party, invoked God throughout his speech and praised Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most influential Shiite cleric in Iraq, as "the greatest supporter of Iraqis."

The day had opened on a grim note, as a suicide car bomber attacked an Iraqi Army checkpoint at 9 a.m. in the city of Baquba. The explosion killed at least three soldiers and wounded another 11, an Iraqi Army spokesman said.

The American military said a soldier had died of wounds from a roadside bomb attack south of Baghdad. Late Wednesday, an Interior Ministry official said the police had discovered four decapitated male bodies in western Baghdad.

The Iraqi police set up checkpoints throughout central Baghdad on Wednesday, going so far as to bar all motor vehicles from the streets around the Green Zone, a heavily fortified area of government buildings, snarling traffic for miles. People going to the convention center were forced to walk, in a scene reminiscent of Jan. 30, when a traffic ban sent Iraqis to polling stations on foot. American Apache attack helicopters swooped low over rooftops, and soldiers loitered around Humvees outside the convention center.

The meeting was scheduled to begin at 11 a.m., and at least three mortar rounds landed inside the Green Zone about 11:15 a.m., rattling the windows of the convention center. There were no reports of casualties.

The meeting did not start until about 11:45 a.m. It opened with a reading of Koranic verses, and the eldest member of the assembly, Sheik Dhari al-Fayadh, was named the temporary parliamentary head, in accordance with Iraqi custom. Then came a steady stream of speakers, including Ashraf Qazi, the head of the United Nations mission here.

When Dr. Allawi took the stage, dressed in a black suit and crimson tie, he tried to sound an upbeat note, reflecting on what he considered to be achievements under his watch.

"We have emerged victorious against the terrorists in many confrontations," he said. "I would also like to thank the Iraqi people, who challenged terrorism when they went to the polls to cast their votes in the first democratic elections in a free Iraq."

Shortly after 1 p.m., the head of the judiciary council, Medhat al-Mahmoud, read aloud the oath of office. The assembly members stood up together and raised their right hands. Mr. Mahmoud charged them, among other things, with upholding the country’s newfound freedoms.

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