Iraq parliament sits; politicians say new government months away

Three months after elections, Iraq's parliament met for the first time in a short meeting to swear in new members. Politicians say negotiations on forming a new government could still be months away from completion.

Karim Kadim/AP
Iraqis watch Speaker Fouad Massoum on TV at a cafe in Baghdad, Iraq, Monday. Iraq's new parliament was sworn in Monday but postponed a decision on a new president as the country remains in political limbo three months after elections.

Iraq’s parliament was sworn in Monday in an abbreviated session that some politicians said marked the beginning of greater political problems.

Almost all the 325 members gathered along with foreign diplomats at Saddam Hussein's former convention center to pledge to protect Iraq's sovereignty and independence.

"The will of the people has been implemented," acting Speaker Fouad Massoum said in opening the second parliamentary term since Mr. Hussein was toppled. The chambers were a sea of tribal robes, business suits, head scarves, and glittering Kurdish dresses. Many of the Kurdish members made a point of reciting the oath of office in Kurdish rather than Arabic. Some members said this was the first time in memory that President Jalal Talabani, himself Kurdish, had missed a major ceremony.

Mr. Talabani's absence was part of the attempt to keep the session as perfunctory as possible, according to Mr. Massoum.

The session ended after less than 20 minutes. As expected, a new speaker was not chosen. Iraq's factions continue to negotiate over who will take key posts in the next government, including prime minister and president. To bypass a constitutional requirement that a speaker and two deputies be chosen at the first meeting, the session was technically left open.

"This is a message that the serious negotiations start today," Safia Suhail, a leading figure in Prime Minister Nour al-Maliki's State of Law coalition and a member of parliament, says in an interview after the parliamentary session.

More than three months after the election and a manual recount of more than 2 million ballots, there is still no agreement between political leaders as to who actually won. Former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi's secular coalition maintains that the two-seat lead he won in the election entitles him to head a government while Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's new Shiite alliance formed after the poll argues that its greater number of seats gives it that right.

"This follows the constitutional requirement but we also hope it will accelerate the process of forming the government," Sadeq al-Rakabi, one of Mr. Maliki's advisers, says about the opening of parliament. Under the new Constitution, parliament has to convene within 15 days of the certification of the final election results. What happens afterward regarding choosing a prime minister is open to interpretation.

"There are many, many confusing [issues] in the articles of the Constitition and that is why we have so many disagreements," Mr. Massoum told the Monitor in an interview following today's session.

Sadr bloc may back Allawi

While popular on the streets, Maliki has run into strong opposition from other political parties. The Sadr bloc, loyal to Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and his late father, is particularly adamant that Maliki not be prime minister again because he sent Iraqi troops to fight Mr. Sadr's Mahdi Army in Basra and Baghdad. Mr. Allawi, a secular Shiite and prime minister in 2004 and 2005, is also opposed by the more religious parties. The Sadrists favor another former prime minister, Ibrahim al-Jaffari.

But, on Monday, the Sadrists did not rule out breaking ranks with the new Shiite coalition announced just last week and backing Allawi, of the Iraqiya Party, as prime minister.

"We need time to sort it out," says Baha al-Araji, a senior member of the Sadr bloc. "We have two problems – one inside the new bloc and the other with Iraqiya and the Kurds – I think we need at least two months to settle that." The Kurds are waiting to see who will emerge as the likely prime minister before conducting serious negotiations that will result in giving their support. Asked whether the Sadr bloc might support Allawi over Maliki, Mr. Araji says: "Everything is possible in the political world."

The political turmoil has unsettled the US, which is planning to withdraw combat troops in August. It has also raised fears of increased violence.

A bomb attack on Iraq's central bank headquarters on Sunday killed at least 18 people and wounded dozens more. The opening of parliament took place under extremely heavy security. Many of Baghdad's roads were closed. In the parliament building itself, Kurdish guards confiscated anything that could possibly be disguised an explosive, including chewing gum.

US role at parliament scrutinized

The US role in the chamber was as controversial as its ongoing role outside. Before today's session, members of the Sadr group met to decide whether to disrupt the opening if US Ambassador Chris Hill attended.

"We refuse his presence as they are an occupying country,” Maha al-Douri, a newly installed parliamentarian, said as she entered the Sadr group meeting. No protest materialized after it became apparent that Mr. Hill would be one of many diplomats present and had no formal role in the proceedings.

A leading Iraqiya politician meanwhile, called for US intervention to try to bring the parties together.

"The session today was a matter of protocol. I think the problem starts today," says Sheikh Adnan al-Dambous, a parliamentarian. "I believe Iraq will see difficult days in the near future and maybe the formation of the government will be delayed for more than two months – it needs the involvement of the Americans to calm the situation down," he adds, calling for the US to help mediate to bring the party's together.

Outside Iraqiya, which has strong Sunni support, many politicians reject that suggestion outright.

"Shame on us that after seven years we are still seeking the help of the international community to get us together in a round table to discuss the issue of our country," says Ms. Suhail, the parliamentarian from Maliki's State of Law coalition. "We keep announcing that we don’t want anyone to interfere in Iraqi decisions but to defend ourselves from this we should really start by having the will as Iraqis to get everybody together."

Mohammad al-Dulaimy contributed to this report.

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