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Iraq parliament meets, no deal on government
Updated: 2005-03-16 15:01

Iraq's new parliament meets for the first time on Wednesday more than six weeks after it was elected in historic polls, but the country is still without a government as rival blocs bicker over a deal.

The Shi'ite Islamist alliance that won 140 seats in the 275-member National Assembly and the Kurdish coalition that came second with 75 seats have been holding negotiations for weeks to agree on a government but remain deadlocked.

An Iraqi Kurdish man shops near posters of Kurdish leader and presidential candidate Jalal Talabani in the northern city of Suleimaniya, March 15, 2005. [Reuters]
An Iraqi Kurdish man shops near posters of Kurdish leader and presidential candidate Jalal Talabani in the northern city of Suleimaniya, March 15, 2005. [Reuters]
There is tentative agreement that Ibrahim Jaafari of the Shi'ite Dawa party will be prime minister and Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani will be president, with a Sunni Arab candidate probably being offered the job of parliament speaker.

But talks have stalled over Kurdish demands to expand their northern autonomous zone to include the strategic oil city of Kirkuk and the fate of the Kurdish peshmerga militias, which Shi'ites want to be absorbed in Iraq's official security forces. The Kurds also want guarantees Iraq will remain secular.

Politicians had hoped that by the time of Wednesday's parliament meeting agreement would have been reached. Some officials said on Tuesday a deal could be struck within the next few days.

"We expect to sign a declaration in the next few days on general principles that include dealing with the city of Kirkuk according to the interim constitution," said Mohammad Bahr al-Uloum, a member of the majority Shi'ite bloc.

But another Shi'ite official was less optimistic, describing recent political bargaining as "arguments of the deaf."

The delay in forming a government has angered many Iraqis, after more than eight million people defied suicide bombers and mortar attacks to vote in the Jan. 30 elections.

Current Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, whose bloc came third in the polls, will remain caretaker leader until a deal is agreed.

According to Iraq's interim constitution, the National Assembly must agree on a president and two vice presidents by a two-thirds majority. These officials will then appoint a prime minister. This means there must be agreement between two-thirds of the 275 assembly members on the shape of the government.

The elections were a cornerstone of U.S. plans to hand more responsibility to Iraqi politicans and security forces so that foreign troops can eventually leave. But many U.S. allies are cutting troop numbers faster than Washington had hoped.

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said on RAI state television on Tuesday that Rome would start to pull its troops out of Iraq in September.

Berlusconi said he was also in talks with British Prime Minister Tony Blair about a total exit strategy from Iraq, adding the people in both countries -- where the 2003 U.S.-led invasion was unpopular -- wanted their troops to return home.

Asked when a total withdrawal of troops would take place, Berlusconi was cautious, saying: "It will depend on the capacity of the Iraqi government to provide adequate security."

Relations between Rome and Washington were strained this month when U.S. troops fired on a car that was taking a freed Italian hostage to the airport. The hostage, journalist Giuliana Sgrena, was wounded and Italian secret agent Nicola Calipari was killed. The U.S. army said the shooting was a tragic accident.

But the shooting caused further embarrassment for the U.S. military after a scandal over the abuse of Iraqi prisoners.

On Tuesday, a U.S. Army lieutenant was sentenced to 45 days in jail and loss of $12,000 in pay for his part in assaults on Iraqi detainees that may have caused one to drown.

1st Lt. Jack Saville pleaded guilty to assault for having two Iraqis thrown at gunpoint into the Tigris river in Samarra in January 2004 and was convicted of lesser assault in a separate incident at Balad in December 2003.

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