Nascent Iraqi Assembly Adjourns Until Weekend Amid Bickering


New York Times

March 30, 2005

BAGHDAD, Iraq, March 29 - Sharp ethnic and sectarian divisions emerged today during the second meeting of the constitutional assembly, as some members stood up and accused others of hijacking the political process and betraying the Iraqi people by failing to form a coalition government.

The heated arguments prompted the head of the assembly to ban reporters from the room and call for the assembly to reconvene next weekend, nine weeks after the Jan. 30 elections, in hope that the top members would be ready to fill some key government positions then.

Prominent assembly members also said in interviews that the delay in cobbling together a government could very well force the assembly to take an extra half-year to write a permanent constitution, pushing the deadline for a first draft well beyond the original deadline of Aug. 15. The elections for a full-term government at the end of the year would then have to be pushed back by six months, slowing the American-led process of implanting democracy here in the heart of the Middle East.

"Realistically, I think it's very difficult," Haichem al-Hassani, a leading Sunni Arab politician and a top candidate for the post of defense minister, said of the August deadline. "I think it's wishful thinking."

The afternoon meeting of the assembly, which descended into a shouting match, showed how the current negotiations to form a government could be poisoning the entire political process and fracturing the major political blocs, already divided along ethnic and sectarian lines.

In Washington, President Bush tried to soothe concerns that democratic process in Iraq was being jeopardized by the absence of an elected government.

"We expect a new government will be chosen soon and that the assembly will vote to confirm it," he told reporters in the White House Rose Garden. "We look forward to working with the government that emerges from this process."

In recent days, politicians here had said the assembly might be able to choose an assembly speaker and two vice-speakers at the meeting today. But those hopes were dashed on Monday when the leading candidate for speaker, Sheik Ghazi al-Yawer, the interim president, turned down the job. The main parties have agreed that a Sunni Arab should take the post and are now struggling over whom to nominate.

The second member to speak, Shatha al-Mousawi, a prominent member of the main Shiite bloc, stood up in her flowing black robes and asked the temporary assembly leaders why no one could settle on a candidate, implying that the Sunni Arabs were responsible for the delay.

"I demand the revelation of all details to the public and to all the members in order for the people to be aware of who is obstructing the democratic and political process," she said. "If you don't do that, then you are covering for the enemies of the Iraqi people."

A Shiite cleric, Hussein al-Sadr, took up the microphone a few minutes later and called for the assembly to start installing a government on Wednesday.

"People on the street are counting on us," said Mr. Sadr, a member of the Iraqi List, the slate formed by Ayad Allawi, the interim prime minister. "What are we going to tell the people who went to vote on Jan. 30?"

As the shouting increased and more accusations flew, four prominent members of the assembly left the room - Dr. Allawi; his friend Hazem al-Shalaan, the defense minister; Sheik Yawer; and the public works minister, Nasreen Berwari, who is married to Sheik Yawer.

The 275-member assembly is charged with installing a government and writing a permanent constitution. Once the assembly puts in place a president and two vice presidents, called the presidency council, those officers will have two weeks to appoint a prime minister, who chooses a cabinet. The problem is that the transitional basic law approved in March 2004 and written under the direction of the Americans does not set a deadline for the appointment of the presidency council.

The main Shiite bloc, which has 140 assembly seats, and the main Kurdish bloc, which has 75, have been in heated negotiations to form a coalition, since a two-thirds vote of the assembly is needed to approve the government. The two sides have been at odds over a range of issues, from control of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk to the role of Islam in the new government. In recent days, officials from the two groups have said conflicts between them and with the Sunni Arabs over several important ministerial posts, including that of oil minister, are stalling the talks.

The assembly meeting took place as reports emerged that three Romanian journalists had been kidnapped in Baghdad on Monday. Two of them, Marie Jeanne Ion and Sorin Miscoci, work for a television network, and the third, Ovidiu Ohanesian, writes for a daily newspaper. Romania has 800 troops in Iraq, though Romanian officials said the abductions were likely for profit and not motivated by politics.

In Kirkuk, a bomb explosion injured 16 people, police officials said. The attack took place as the 41-member provincial council met to try to appoint a provincial government. But the 15 Arab and Turkmen members stormed out, accusing the rest of the council, made up of Kurds, of trying to take over the city, according to a reporter for Agence France-Presse who was in the room.

In Baghdad, at about 1:15 p.m., shortly before the National Assembly meeting began, two mortar shells landed in the heavily fortified Green Zone, where the session was being held. There were no reports of injuries.