- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 29, 2005

BAGHDAD — Iraq’s new legislature adjourned amid acrimony yesterday, after failing in its second session to achieve its main order of business — the selection of a permanent National Assembly speaker.

The session started almost three hours late as participants tried to strike a deal, and when the meeting quickly dissolved into bickering, reporters were ordered out of the room. The members finally agreed to try again Sunday.

The partisan quarreling, reflective of the problems that have held up the formation of a government for two months, led several legislators yesterday to question whether the assembly would meet its deadlines for writing a constitution and organizing the next round of elections.

“There’s simply not enough time to draft the constitution,” said Ali al-Dabagh, a leading member of the Shi’ite coalition that holds a slim majority of seats in the 275-member assembly. “We’ll have to extend the constitutional period.”

Members are clearly concerned about the effect of the delay on ordinary Iraqis, millions of whom braved the threats of a violent insurgency to vote in the historic elections Jan. 30.

“The street wants action from us,” parliament member Hossein al-Sadr said. “What do we say to the voters who risked their lives to vote for us?”

Members elected in January had met only once before — for a largely ceremonial session March 16. They had hoped to select a permanent speaker from among the few Sunni Muslims in the legislature at yesterday’s meeting.

But the debate quickly became sidetracked when politicians brought up personal concerns. One demanded discussion of a raid on his house by British troops in Basra, and others began shouting one another down.

Suddenly, the acting speaker of parliament ordered the press out of the room, and the state-run Al Iraqiya television cut from its live broadcast of the session to stock footage of musicians playing the national anthem.

Politicians began storming out of the session. A group of U.S. diplomats, watching the drama on television at a nearby media center, sheepishly sauntered away.

Iraq’s interim constitution requires a two-thirds majority of the assembly to agree on a president and two vice presidents, who in turn will name a prime minister and Cabinet.

A Shi’ite coalition aligned with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani that has a majority of members is determined to put its stamp on the new government, but a Kurdish coalition from the north of Iraq holds enough seats to block any arrangement that falls short of its demands.

Sunni Arabs — who dominated public life under dictator Saddam Hussein — make up 20 percent of the population, but boycotted the election or stayed home for fear of terrorist attacks, and so hold only a handful of seats.

Politicians had hoped to address that imbalance yesterday by giving the office of speaker to a Sunni, but the Sunnis were unable to come up with a suitable candidate.

“We should be given time to nominate someone to that position,” said Hachem al-Hassani, a Sunni legislator rumored to be in line to become the new defense minister.

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