- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 3, 2005

BAGHDAD — Lawmakers yesterday chose a Sunni Muslim as their parliament speaker, breaking through ethnic and sectarian barriers that have held up the selection of a new government for more than two months.

But the deputies still are divided over Cabinet posts and failed again to name a new president — broadly expected to be Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani. That choice and those of two vice presidents were put off until another session on Wednesday.

Once the president and his deputies are selected, they will have 14 days to choose a prime minister, the most powerful position in Iraq’s envisioned governmental hierarchy. That job was widely thought to be reserved for Ibrahim al-Jaafari of the Shi’ite Muslim majority.

Pressure is building on parliamentarians, who have an Aug. 15 deadline to write a permanent constitution — a task that cannot be undertaken until a government is in place.

The new speaker is Industry Minister Hajim al-Hassani, one of only 17 Sunni Arabs in parliament. His selection could signal progress in the political tussle over selecting politicians for key Cabinet posts, a process that has been snarled by disagreement over how to reach out to the Sunnis.

Sunnis, who were dominant under Saddam Hussein, are thought to make up the backbone of the Iraqi insurgency. Many of them boycotted the Jan. 30 elections or stayed home for fear of being attacked at the polls. Saddam was ousted in 2003.

Mr. al-Hassani refused to quit his ministerial post last year when his Iraqi Islamic Party pulled out of the interim government to protest a U.S. assault on the militant stronghold of Fallujah, a mainly Sunni city.

Former nuclear scientist Hussain al-Shahristani, a Shi’ite, and Kurdish official Aref Taifour were chosen deputy speakers.

The task of filling the speaker’s job, seen as holding relatively little real power, produced more than a week of sometimes angry haggling. A session Tuesday ended in shouting and finger-pointing as deputies tried to agree on candidates.

“It’s time for the patient Iraqi people to be treated with the dignity that God has given them,” Mr. al-Hassani said yesterday in accepting his new post.

“If we neglect our duties and fail, then we will hurt ourselves and the people will replace us with others,” he said.

Lawmakers appeared largely happy with the choice of the three men, but some expressed disappointment that a president had not been chosen as planned.

During the session, some lawmakers called for the release of detainees in U.S. military prisons, a day after dozens of insurgents attacked the Abu Ghraib prison west of Baghdad with car bombs, gunfire and rocket-propelled grenades.

One insurgent died in the 40-minute firefight that wounded 44 U.S. troops and 13 prisoners.

An Internet statement purportedly by al Qaeda in Iraq took responsibility yesterday. The statement could not be independently verified.

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