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Shi’ite group, Kurdish leaders set to sign pact

- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 10, 2005

Iraq's top Shi'ite alliance is to sign an agreement with Kurdish leaders this weekend, clearing the way for the opening of the country's first freely elected National Assembly next week, Iraqi officials said yesterday.

"We could have the inauguration of the new government as early as April or maybe earlier," said Qubad Talabani, son of Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) leader Jalal Talabani and the party's Washington spokesman.

"This is a very positive step forward and will help us maintain the postelection momentum," he said of the deal expected to be signed in Baghdad on Sunday.

The agreement formalizes the nomination of Jalal Talabani as the country's new president and Ibrahim al-Jaafari of the Shi'ite Dawa party to the powerful post of prime minister.

Pressure for the 275-member assembly to meet has been building since it was selected in voting Jan. 30, with terrorists unleashing a wave of bombings and executions aimed at destabilizing the country.

Unable to reconcile details on the future of Iraq's significant Kurdish population, the pact also simply states that Kurdish demands on oil, Kirkuk, distribution of the national budget and their peshmerga militia will be resolved by the assembly.

"We have reached agreement on the need to work on making decisions on the basis of consensus," Qubad Talabani said.

Signing the agreement will be the two main Shi'ite leaders within the Unified Iraqi Alliance that won 140 seats -- Mr. al-Jaafari and Abdel Aziz al-Hakim of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq -- and the two principal Kurdish leaders -- Jalal Talabani and Massoud Barzani of the Kurdistan Democratic Party -- who have 75 seats.

The National Assembly is to hold its first session on March 16 inside the heavily fortified green zone, Dawa party spokesman Adnan Ali said from Baghdad by telephone.

"Everything has been prepared," he said. "Fifty percent of the members of the assembly have received their badges to enter the green zone."

The deal between the Shi'ite and Kurdish blocs broke a political deadlock that had been holding up the meeting of the assembly and the final nominations to the Cabinet.

But more tough talks are ahead over the posts of the two vice presidents and the ministries of oil, defense, finance, interior and foreign affairs, said a member of the Shi'ite alliance.

The Kurds are pushing for at least two of those ministries, but the member said they would probably settle for one ministry and the post of deputy prime minister. Shi'ite leaders also are pushing for key ministerial positions.

"Everybody should be happy, but nobody is happy yet," said the alliance member.

"Iraqis are watching what they are doing, it has been six weeks since the election and they have seen nothing yet. All the parties have to push forward a little bit to show the Iraqis what they will get for their sacrifices," he said.

Political leaders also are trying to include Sunnis in the future government, but that is proving a challenge after moderate Sunnis failed to gain seats in the assembly, the hard-line Sunni Association of Muslim Scholars boycotted the election, and other Sunnis have decided to take their fight to the streets.

One option is the Iraqi Islamic Party of Sunni Muslim Mohsen Abdul Hakim, who once headed the U.S.-appointed Iraq Governing Council.

"We have been in good dialogue with him, and his party will certainly be part of the political process in Iraq," Qubad Talabani said.

He said a new government could be agreed upon behind the scenes perhaps as early as one week after the assembly convenes, then the assembly is likely to wrangle over the final pieces of the puzzle for another week.

That means Iraq could see the inauguration of the first post-Saddam elected president as early as next month.