On Eve of National Assembly, Iraqi Parties Still Lack Consensus


New York Times

March 29, 2005

BAGHDAD, Iraq, March 28 -The country's leading political parties held last-minute talks today before a meeting of the National Assembly scheduled for Tuesday, as a wave of violence in central Iraq that began on Sunday night left at least nine people dead, several of them police officers.

As the 275-member assembly prepared to hold its second meeting, more than two months after general elections, it appeared that the top politicians had failed to reach any deal to install a government.

At best, the assembly is expected to name a speaker and two vice-speakers, said Adnan Pachachi, a leading Sunni Arabpolitician. But even that looked doubtful on Monday afternoon: The leading candidate for speaker and current interim president, Sheik Ghazi al-Yawer, had turned down the job, said Ahmad Najati, the sheik's personal secretary. The leaders of the top parties were meeting on Monday evening to discuss the issue.

The leading Shiite bloc, the United Iraqi Alliance, was trying to put forward Fawaz al-Jarba, a Sunni Arab candidate from its group, as a possible alternative. Some politicians have expressed resistance, though, to having a Sunni from the alliance take on the job of assembly speaker, since the alliance already dominates the assembly, having the most seats of any bloc, and is expected to secure the post of prime minister.

Mr. Pachachi said Sheik Yawer had been the overall favorite choice, but that the sheik had never been keen on taking the job.

Even if the assembly were to appoint a speaker, though, that would be a fairly insignificant step toward forming a government. The first real move will come when the assembly appoints a president and two vice-presidents. Then, according to the transitional law approved a year ago, those officers will be obligated to name a prime minister within two weeks.

The National Assembly held a largely ceremonial meeting in mid-March. As talks to form a coalition government have dragged on, the optimism spawned by the Jan. 30 elections has eroded, and work at some ministries has slowed. Many Iraqis are clamoring for the speedy appointment of a government that can suppress the continuing violence and improve basic services, especially electricity.

All sides have said they are now haggling over cabinet positions, among other things. Mr. Pachachi said the leading Sunni parties had banded together into an umbrella group called the Front of the Iraqi Political Forces. The group has appointed five politicians to take part in negotiations with the Shiites and Kurds.

Mr. Pachachi said the Sunnis met separately with the Shiite and Kurdish blocs last week and presented their demands. The Sunni groups want at least the same number of ministry positions as the Kurds, including either the Interior or Defense Ministry, he said. Since political leaders say the Interior Ministry will almost certainly go to the Shiites, that leaves the Defense Ministry.

"I think we made a point that it should not be less than what the Kurds have," Mr. Pachachi said.

The Kurds and former governing Sunni Arabs each make up roughly a fifth of the Iraqi population, while the Shiite Arabs make up at least 60 percent.

Mr. Pachachi himself is a leading contender for one of the two vice-presidency slots. The other Sunni Arabs being considered for that slot are Sheik Yawer and Shari Ali bin al-Hussein, several politicians say. A Kurd, Jalal Talabani, will likely be named president at some point, and a Shiite Arab is expected to take the other vice-presidency slot.

Attacks flared across Baghdad and elsewhere late Sunday and today. A suicide bomber on a motorcycle rammed into a checkpoint in the town of Musayyib, south of Baghdad, on Sunday evening, killing two police officers and injuring five people, police officials in the southern town of Karbala said. In that same area, gunmen opened fire this morning on Shiite pilgrims in the town of Yusufiya, killing three of them, a hospital official in Baghdad said.

The region where those attacks took place is called the Triangle of Death, because Iraqi security forces and Shiite Arabs have been killed regularly there by Sunni Arab insurgents and criminal gangs. Shiite pilgrims are now heading through that area to the holy city of Karbala for a religious festival this week. The festival is tied to the seventh-century martyrdom in battle of the Prophet Muhammad's grandson, Hussein, and attacks on Shiite pilgrims are expected to increase in the coming days.

In Baghdad, gunmen opened fire on a car carrying a police officer, Col. Abdul Karim Fahad Abbas, killing him and his driver as he went to work, The Associated Press reported, citing a police captain.

The hospital official in Baghdad said that a homemade bomb planted in a trash dump exploded today, killing a police officer and a road cleaner and injuring nine others. A group of cleaners had spotted something unusual in the trash dump and reported it. When the police came to check out the scene, the official said, the bomb exploded.