- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 16, 2005

BAGHDAD — Iraq’s newly elected legislators celebrated their nation’s democracy in high spirits yesterday, taking their oaths of office and vowing to uphold the laws of the land at the largely ceremonial opening of the National Assembly that was elected in January.

Neither a series of mortar blasts outside nor the ever-present drone of attack helicopters overhead could dampen the spirits of the politicians and diplomats who gathered for the ceremony inside the heavily fortified green zone.

“It is a great day, and it is a historic day,” said Saad Jawad Qindeel, an incoming member of parliament and a member of the Shi’ite alliance that holds a narrow majority in the chamber.

“This is the first freely elected national assembly convening in the history of Iraq. And this is the first national assembly that will elect a legitimate government that has come through the ballot boxes.”

Iraqis risked death when they voted 275 legislators into office Jan. 30 in what was widely heralded as a display of civic courage. But nearly seven weeks later, the politicians still have not been able to work out their differences and form a government.

Outside of Baghdad, a U.S. soldier died in a roadside bomb blast south of the capital, the military said, while a car bomb northeast of the capital killed four Iraqis and injured 15.

The cleric-backed Shi’ite alliance and the Kurds, who between them won at least 215 of the 275 seats in the parliament in the elections, have been negotiating the country’s future in closed-door meetings for weeks.

Neither group can appoint ministers and govern without the other; Iraq’s interim constitution requires a two-thirds majority of voters to appoint a presidential council, who must then form a government.

Kurds want control over their 100,000-strong “peshmerga” militia as well as guarantees on the future status of Kirkuk, the disputed oil-rich city in northern Iraq that Kurds consider part of their ancestral homeland.

Kurds said decades of dictator Saddam Hussein’s tyranny couldn’t be resolved overnight.

“We have to be a little patient,” said Hoshyar Zebari, Iraq’s Kurdish foreign minister. “We have waited 80 years to resolve some of the injustices of the Iraqi state.”

Kurds also have demanded that the Shi’ite majority, led by the clerical hierarchy in the holy city of Najaf, bring the 40-seat coalition of Prime Minister Iyad Allawi into the government.

Leaders of the Shi’ite coalition repeatedly have snubbed Mr. Allawi, a secular Shi’ite with close ties to the United States.

Shi’ite leader Adel Abdul-Mahdi, the country’s French-educated interim finance minister, predicted a new government would be announced next week.

“We have to complete our deliberations with the others,” he said. “We’ve finished a certain stage of deliberations with our brother Kurds. We want a government of national unity.”

Despite the underlying tensions, disagreements and frustrations — which have spilled onto editorial pages of local newspapers — Iraqi politicians hailed yesterday as an important day for the country’s future.

“Iraq has liberated itself after shedding rivers of blood,” Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani, who is likely to be Iraq’s next president, told the 260 or so parliamentarians gathered.

Ghazi Mashal Ajil al-Yawer, the president and a member of the country’s restless Sunni Arab minority, urged legislators to draw his community into the political process. Sunni Arabs largely boycotted the election and are underrepresented in the parliament.

“We ask God to give us the courage to preserve the rights of those who did not participate,” he told his colleagues. “We are not divided into winners and losers. We are either all winners or all losers.”

Yesterday’s affair was politically insignificant. No decisions were made and no votes taken. The delegates did not even choose a speaker, deciding simply to have the oldest member of the parliament preside. Speakers — who included Mr. Allawi and U.N. envoy Ashraf Qazi — mostly made bland calls for unity.

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