Iraq lawmakers fail to agree on speaker
In a chaotic session marred by shouting, finger-pointing and walkouts by Iraq's top leaders, the new parliament failed Tuesday to choose a speaker — an impasse that brought tensions to the surface and raised concerns about a government that still isn't in place two months after landmark elections.
The National Assembly's second meeting ever was certainly its stormiest — marked by outbursts of anger and wrangling among Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish legislators. The session was first delayed for nearly three hours, then abruptly closed to the media, its live TV feed cut off.
The Shiite-led United Iraqi Alliance and the Kurdish coalition want an Arab Sunni to hold the position as a way of healing rifts with the Sunnis, many of whom boycotted the Jan. 30 elections or simply feared attacks at the polls.
"We saw that things were confused today, so we gave (the Sunnis) a last chance," said Hussein al-Sadr, a Shiite cleric and member of interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi's coalition. "We expect the Sunni Arab brothers to nominate their candidate. Otherwise, we will vote on a candidate on Sunday."
More meetings were scheduled for this week. "There's a consensus that the talks should continue tonight and in the coming days so that Sunday's session will be better," Alliance negotiator Abdul Karim al-Anzi said.
Iraqis, already frustrated with drawn-out negotiations, were angered by the meeting.
"They haven't been able to even name a parliament speaker, so how will they rule Iraq when they're only after their personal interests and gains?" said 35-year-old Sunni Sahib Jassim. "They don't care about the Iraqi people."
In an interview Sunday on CNN, Army Gen. John Abizaid, also expressed concern, saying: "The more uncertainty, the greater chance for escalated violence."
US President Bush said the differences "will be resolved through debate and persuasion instead of force and intimidation."
"The free people of Iraq are now doing what Saddam Hussein never could: making Iraq a positive example for the entire Middle East," he said.
Some legislators argued the divisions reflected Iraq's new democracy.
"People should get used to seeing different opinions being discussed," al-Anzi said.
Tuesday's drama left some questioning how Iraq's new lawmakers would tackle more important issues as they shape the country's democratic transformation.
The assembly still needs to name a president and two deputies, who will in turn nominate a prime minister. The presidency is expected to go to Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani and the premiership to Shiite politician Ibrahim al-Jaafari.
Some politicians speculated the delay could force them to request a six-month extension to the Aug. 15 deadline for drafting a permanent constitution. "I think the time won't be enough. We might need an extension," said Alliance member Ali al-Dabagh.
Haggling over the different ministries also continues, with both the Kurds and Shiites asking to get the Oil Ministry. Some Sunnis hope to get the Interior Ministry, but the Alliance wants them to have the Defense Ministry instead.
Negotiators spent much of the morning trying to convince interim President Ghazi al-Yawer, a Sunni Arab, to take the speaker's post. But he refused, and is holding out for one of two vice presidential spots.
"With the small number of Sunni Arabs in the assembly, this post won't put us in a position to strike a balance," al-Yawer said.
Ammar Wajeeh of the Sunnis' Iraqi Islamic Party said that in addition to al-Yawer, Alliance and Kurdish officials offered the speaker's post to Minister of Industry Hajim al-Hassani, who refused it partly because it was more administrative than political.
The Sunnis have put forth Adnan al-Janabi, who ran on Allawi's ticket, Wajeeh said. But the Alliance objected because al-Janabi's brother once worked as a senior official of the ruling party under Saddam, he added.
The Alliance said it was ready to name a Sunni from its own coalition, Fawaz al-Jarba, for the post, a proposal that didn't sit well with some Sunnis who accused the Alliance of trying to impose its members. Alliance members deny the charge and argue the Sunnis have failed to agree on a position because they have no unified leadership.
Sunni legislator Meshaan al-Jubouri has said some Sunni members have threatened to walk out of the assembly if they felt their interests were being compromised.
Tensions rose as Tuesday's meeting was delayed, with politicians milling about or huddling in the halls of Baghdad's convention center. Finally called to order, it quickly disintegrated, with lawmakers lashing out at negotiators and arguing whether to delay the decision on a speaker.
Officials, eyeing the confusion as well as television cameras broadcasting the melee, abruptly kicked out all media and closed the meeting to the public, a decision that was loudly protested by some angry members who said Iraqis needed to know what was going on.
Allawi later left the session, looking angry, followed by al-Yawer. Alliance negotiators said Allawi departed because he had another commitment.
"What are we going to tell the citizens who sacrificed their lives and cast ballots on Jan. 30?" a bewildered al-Sadr asked.
Together, the Alliance and the Kurds have 215 seats — enough to make key decisions. But their members say they don't want to alienate any of the country's minority groups.
Shiites make up 60 percent of the country's 26 million people. The Kurds, who are largely Sunnis, make up 20 percent, and the Sunni Arabs are roughly 15 to 20 percent.
Some have argued the Sunni Arab candidates being discussed for government posts have no influence on the insurgency and their participation is unlikely to affect it.
Tuesday's meeting wasn't marked by the same attacks launched during the first parliament session on March 16, when militants lobbed mortar rounds at the heavily fortified Green Zone where the meeting was held.
Still, explosions were heard in the capital, and some appeared to be close to the Green Zone. Damage was unclear.