Iraq's National Assembly Mired in Shouting Matches

By Alissa J. Rubin

Los Angeles Times

March 30, 2005

BAGHDAD — Iraq's new National Assembly was only 10 minutes into its second session today when members became mired in a shouting match that caused leaders to close the gathering to the media.

The meeting broke up after an hour with no progress in the effort to form a government.

After offering a rare glimpse of open debate in the legislative body, lawmakers ordered the media to shutter its camera lenses and local televisions stations began to play music — much as they had during Saddam Hussein's time when instructed to do so by the government, onlookers noted.

The disarray is the result of a hardball struggle among individual politicians as well as political blocs over how to share power.

While many of the policy differences among the factions have been resolved, now at issue is raw power: who gets which ministry, who becomes a vice president or a deputy prime minister.

"The problem is that, so far, there are no mutual understandings among the principal political blocs," said Sheik Abdul Karim Mohammedawi, a Shiite Muslim from the assembly's largest bloc, the United Iraqi Alliance, who is known for his independent views.

Several prominent members said they expect the assembly to convene Sunday and name a speaker and two vice speakers after Sunni Muslims have had a chance to caucus and decide on a speaker. However, the formation of a government is probably weeks away — with April 15 being the earliest, and more likely the end of April.

The political turmoil has worsened since Iraq's historic Jan. 30 elections as the heady excitement over holding elections has faded and the hard- knuckled negotiations have become increasingly fraught.

Complicating matters is that the two largest blocs in the assembly — the mainly Shiite United Iraqi Alliance and the ethnic Kurds — have made public commitments to include as many Sunnis as possible in the new government in order to reach out to the Sunni community, many of whom did not vote.

While everyone applauds that idea, it is difficult to determine who among the assembly members will have credibility with the larger Sunni community because so few Sunnis were elected.

"Why would they call for a meeting of the National Assembly if they had not reached any compromises or joint agreements about mechanisms or about the persons who are going to be at the top of the National Assembly?" asked Mohammedawi, echoing many on the Iraqi streets who have voiced frustration with the lack of progress.

The proximate cause of today's disarray was the announcement by Sheik Ghazi Ajil Yawer that he would turn down the position of National Assembly speaker.

The Sunni Arab's announcement, made to the media Monday night, caught the National Assembly leadership off guard. The position was then offered to another prominent Sunni, interim Industry and Minerals Minister Hachim Hassani, who is a member of Yawer's party. He turned it down as well, saying that without the backing of a significant political bloc — his party has just five of the 275 seats in the assembly — he would be little more than a figurehead.

Furthermore, Hassani hopes to become the defense minister, a post that the United Iraqi Alliance has said could go to a Sunni.

Now, the 17 Sunnis in the assembly are going back to the drawing board to try to find one among them who has enough credibility for his elevation to the speaker's position to be viewed as a genuine effort by the predominantly Shiite and Kurdish legislature at giving power to Sunnis.