Delay Possible on Iraq Charter as Talks Falter


New York Times

March 30, 2005

BAGHDAD, Iraq, March 29 - A meeting of the Iraqi national assembly fell apart along ethnic and sectarian lines Tuesday after members began hurling angry accusations over the failure to form a government, and some leaders said the delay could push back a constitution and elections by half a year.

The temporary head of the assembly, Sheik Dhari al-Fayadh, banned reporters from the room as the arguments grew more heated. He then called for the members to reconvene for a third meeting next weekend, in the hope that the top members would be ready to fill some crucial government positions, nine weeks after general elections.

Prominent assembly members said it appeared that the deadline for a first draft of a constitution would have to be pushed back six months beyond the original deadline of Aug. 15. The delay is allowed under the transitional law if it is proposed by the Iraqi president and if the assembly approves it by a majority vote by Aug. 1. Elections for a full-term government by the end of the year would then have to be delayed as well.

"Realistically, I think it's very difficult," Haichem al-Hassani, a leading Sunni Arab politician and a top candidate for defense minister, said of meeting the Aug. 15 deadline. "I think it's wishful thinking."

Ali al-Dabagh, a prominent member of the main Shiite bloc and an appointee of Grand Ayatollah Ali alSistani, the most powerful Shiite cleric in Iraq, said that "time is too short."

A delay would set back any American plans for a withdrawal from Iraq. On Tuesday, President Bush tried to address growing concerns that a viable democratic future for Iraq was in jeopardy.

"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."

The afternoon meeting of the assembly, which became a shouting match, revealed how the bitter negotiations to form a government may be exacerbating conflicts within the major political blocs, already divided along ethnic and sectarian lines.

In recent days politicians here said the assembly might choose a speaker and two deputy speakers at the meeting on Tuesday. But those hopes were dashed Monday when the leading candidate for speaker, Sheik Ghazi al-Yawar, now 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.

Shatha al-Mousawi, a member of the main Shiite bloc, the United Iraq Alliance, stood up at the meeting in her flowing black robes and furiously asked the temporary assembly leaders why no one could settle on a candidate - essentially accusing the Sunni Arabs of being 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."

An elderly 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.

"The Iraqis in the street are waiting for an accomplishment, waiting for work to be done, and what answer do we have for them?" said Mr. Sadr, a member of the Iraqi List, the slate formed by Ayad Allawi, the interim prime minister. "What is the answer we have for the citizens who risked their lives and voted on Jan. 30?"

As the shouting rose in volume and as more accusations flew, four prominent members left the room: Dr. Allawi; the defense minister, Hazem al-Shalaan, who is a friend of his; Sheik Yawar; and the public works minister, Nasreen Berwari, who is Sheik Yawar's wife.

Across the city, people complained about the urgent need for the bickering politicians to pull together.

"The only loser in all this is the Iraqi people," said Maithem Ali, 30, an employee in a cellphone store in the downtown Karada neighborhood. "The situation is getting worse, and they are still just holding discussions out there."

The 275-member assembly is charged with installing a government and writing a permanent constitution. Once the assembly chooses a president and two vice presidents, those officers will have two weeks to appoint a prime minister, who chooses a cabinet. However, no deadline was set for the appointment of the president and vice presidents.

The main Shiite bloc, which has 140 seats, and the main Kurdish bloc, which has 75, have been in tough negotiations to form a coalition, since a two-thirds vote is needed to approve the government.

The two sides have been at odds over a range of issues, from control of the oil city of Kirkuk to the role of Islam in the new government. In the last week officials from the two groups have said conflicts over several important ministerial posts, including that of oil minister, and talks with Dr. Allawi and Sunni Arab leaders are slowing the process.

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

In Baghdad, 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. Apache attack helicopters swooped over the Green Zone the entire day, and American troops and the Iraqi police closed most of the main bridges spanning the Tigris River.

Zaineb Obeid contributed reporting for this article.