In a sign the political gridlock that has hampered the formation of a new Iraqi government has loosened, the country's newly elected leaders named a national assembly speaker Sunday.
In their third meeting since the Jan. 30 polls, the 275-member assembly approved a Sunni speaker and two deputies after an embarrassing breakdown in the assembly last week over filling the post.
Appointing Hajim al-Hassani, the current industry minister, as speaker is the first tangible progress since elections. It gives the stalled effort to form a new government new momentum - and not a moment too soon. Many Iraqis are growing impatient with the slow pace, which in turn undermines progress on other fronts such as security and reconstruction.
But the most important step still awaits the assembly. Next it must approve a president, the decision that will set the clock ticking on the formation of the entire government. At their meeting Sunday, the assembly planned to meet again Wednesday to elect a president and two deputies. The likely choice for president is Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani.
Once approved by the assembly, the presidency council has two weeks to name a prime minister, who in turn has a month to appoint government ministers.
The vote for Iraq's new speaker of parliament came just hours after a major firefight between insurgents and US forces at Abu Ghraib prison, just outside Baghdad. The insurgent attack on the notorious prison injured 44 US troops and 12 detainees. The attack was said to be the largest on the prison, which holds 3,000 suspected insurgents.
The flurry of political activity Sunday marks a breakthrough in talks between conservative religious Shiites, who hold the most seats in the assembly, and the Kurds, who have the second-largest representation. The two groups had been at loggerheads over numerous issues for weeks.
The Kurdish politicians have backed down from a demand that they control the oil ministry. They also agreed to follow the interim constitution, rather than resolving all constitutional issues before a government is formed, as they had been insisting.
The most contentious issue between the Kurds and Shiites is over the status of the oil-rich northern city of Kirkuk. The Kurds want it to be included in a semiautonomous Kurdistan and had demanded guarantees of that before voting on the presidency, which requires a two-thirds majority of the assembly.
The growing public anger over inaction by the leaders, who Iraqis risked their lives to vote for, was a major factor in breaking the gridlock, a top Kurdish official says.
Abiding bythe interim constitution "is not the real solution, but the Kurdish leaders preferred to take it as a semi-solution to decrease the stress on the government," says Abdul Jalil Faili, head of the Kurdistan Democratic Party in central and southern Iraq. "The Kurds insist on fighting for the identity of Kirkuk more and more, but we follow the Kurdish leaders."
Despite weeks of wrangling, the positions are only temporary until another round of elections are held in December. The fighting over the jobs, however, may be an indication of how negotiations will go when the assembly sets to its real work of writing a permanent constitution. That is when issues such as the degree to which Islamic law will govern Iraq - which the Shiites strongly support and the Kurds reject - will be decided.
The most significant power held by the speaker is the ability to ask for a one-time, six-month extension in writing the permanent constitution. The speaker could potentially leverage that power if lawmakers want to extend the Aug. 15 deadline, something that looks increasingly likely because of the delay in forming the government.
Average Iraqis are eager for a government to be formed that, they hope, can bring some stability to the country. Everything from renewing driver's licenses to launching new efforts to battle the insurgency remains stalled without a government.
"People don't like to sign any contracts with any ministry when they don't know if that new minister will honor them.... Everything is on hold," said Sabah Kadhim, spokesman for the interior ministry, after the assembly failed to choose a speaker last week. "You have to move forward on the security situation, you cannot wait."
Beside frustration, the protracted negotiations also produced strange bedfellows: a unity of opinion between average Sunnis and Shiites who say that Kurds are only looking out for their own interests. Many chafed at the idea of a Kurdish president. "Is it right that the president of an Arab country be a Kurdish man? From the first he should say, I am not Kurdish. I am not a representative of the Kurdish interests of Iraq. He should say I am an Iraqi," says Ghaith al-Azawi, a Sunni businessman.
Although Kurds dismiss those complaints, they say they're justified in protecting Kurdish interests. "All we are doing is fighting for our rights...." Faili says. "The ones who elected [Kurdish leaders] are the Kurdish people, and one of our duties is to protect their rights and be representative of them."
A top Shiite official said Sunday that most government ministries had been allocated to the various parties, but who would run the interior ministry was still being worked out.
During all this, the US has been careful to keep a low profile, concerned that any overt interference could discredit the process.
Separately, a group of 64 Sunni clerics issued a statement Saturday encouraging Iraqi Sunnis to join the police and army - to prevent Iraq's security forces from falling into "the hands of those who have caused chaos, destruction and violated the sanctities."
For months, Sunni clerics had warned against cooperating with the post-Hussein government.