Iraq parties gridlocked over terms

Iraq's major Kurdish and Shiite parties have failed to form a coalition ahead of Wednesday's national assembly opening.

Iraq's national assembly has not met yet, but fighting between the two biggest parties has halted the formation of a government, exacerbating ethnic tensions and testing Iraqis' faith in their fledgling democracy.

This weekend, the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA), a group of religious Shiites that won 51 percent of assembly seats, and the Kurds, who won 27 percent, failed to form a coalition. Without an agreement, observers expect US-backed Prime Minister Iyad Allawi to fill his role indefinitely, according to the interim constitution which governs the process.

Unless last-minute talks in Baghdad late Monday yield a deal, Iraqis who hoped the election would bring new leadership on economic and security problems could be disappointed when the assembly sits Wednesday.

Iraq's interim constitution requires a two-thirds majority of the assembly to agree on a president, who in turn chooses a prime minister, to force consensus building in a country determined to avoid another dictatorship. But this high bar for consensus is difficult to clear by groups with such different ideologies.

Some say the current breakdown between Shiites and Kurds means the thornier task of writing Iraq's permanent constitution will be bogged down by division

"I think the assembly will meet on the 16th but ... talks about forming a government will be postponed and Allawi will stay as prime minister until" they can meet and make an agreement, says an official from the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a leading UIA group.

The main sticking points are Kurdish demands that the majority Shiites agree to give them control over the oil-rich northern city of Kirkuk and allow them to maintain their pesh merga militias as an autonomous army before a new government is formed.

Iraqi Kurds, who hope one day to form an independent country, see Kirkuk as the core of their homeland, a city that was stripped from them by an aggressive Arabization campaign under Saddam Hussein. Both Shiite and Sunni Iraqi Arabs, however, just as strongly see the city as an integral part of the Iraqi state.

"Most of the Kurdish demands are fair and we have a right to Kirkuk - it was ours until the Arabization program,'' says Khalid Mohammed, a Kurd who runs an electrical appliance shop in Baghdad. "We only want what's rightfully ours."

"We have to blame the Kurds first and foremost for this delay,'' says Jalal al-Ghanam, a Shiite and retired government official in Baghdad. "The Kurds carry their own flag - why don't they respect our own? If the UIA gives in to the Kurds over Kirkuk, they will be making a great historical error."

The Shiites want to delay a decision on the future of Kirkuk until after the government is formed. Under article 58 of the constitution, the Kurdish demand that Kirkuk be included in a semi autonomous northern region would be delayed until the permanent constitution is ratified.

Masoud Barzani, the head of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), insisted Sunday in talks with the Shiites that the Kurds won't join a coalition until Kirkuk is ceded to the Kurds, a greater cut of national revenue is given to the northern Kurdish regions, and the pesh merga are allowed to stay in the north.

But giving all that away is something the Shiites say they can't do. Such an agreement would be wildly unpopular within their own community. "Iraq is one country,'' says Amar Mohammed, who works in a Shiite religious library in Baghdad. "If we give them Kirkuk, it will start the process of dividing Iraq into parts."

Abdul Jalil Faili, who heads a KDP regional branch, says the first meeting of the assembly won't accomplish much without Kurd support. "They can't form a government. They can't do anything on the constitution, so what will they meet about?" he says.

To entice the Kurds, the Shiites added a very large carrot into a partnership agreement between the two groups over the weekend. In exchange for delaying decisions on Kirkuk and the other Kurdish issues, the Kurds would be given power to dissolve the government if there were a future disagreement to which no solution could be found.

But even Shiites were uneasy about the provision. Members of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (Sciri) and the Dawa Party, the two main groups in the UIA, won grudging agreement from the rest of the UIA on the deal.

But they still had to seek the support of top Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al- Sistani, who already had concerns that the Kurds were given too much power in the interim constitution.

In the end, it wasn't enough to persuade the Kurds to sign. Both Kurdish and Shiite leaders say negotiations will continue.

The Kurds want their demands met immediately because they're unlikely to ever be in as strong a position again.

The transitional constitution was written in part to appease the Kurds who dominate three northern provinces. One provision allows the new constitution to be scrapped if it is rejected by two-thirds of the voters in any three Iraqi provinces.

This so-called "Kurdish veto" angered many Shiite political leaders and clerics, but was accepted as the price of faster elections. But now the Kurds are, in essence, seeking to keep the parts of the transitional constitution they like and throw out the parts they don't, like the provision that the ultimate status of Kirkuk should be left aside until a later date.

"The demands over Kirkuk can't ever be agreed with - it's an Iraqi city,'' says Aseel Ali, a Shiite woman and a college student. "It's time for the Kurds to ... join with the rest of the Iraqi people."

Dan Murphy in Baghdad contributed to this report.

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