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Ahmed Chalabi (L), a candidate for prime minister, and cleric Abdul Aziz al-Hakim spoke at yesterday’s assembly.
Ahmed Chalabi (L), a candidate for prime minister, and cleric Abdul Aziz al-Hakim spoke at yesterday’s assembly. (Getty Images Photo / Wathiq Khuzaie)

Iraqi legislators mired in strife.

New constitution may face delay

BAGHDAD -- Two months of political wrangling have slowed the naming of a new Iraqi government so dramatically that legislators will probably miss the long-established goal of drafting a constitution by August, and elections scheduled for December are likely to be put off until mid-2006, leaders of the main political parties said yesterday.

They spoke as Iraq's new 275-member National Assembly convened for just the second time since it was elected Jan. 30 and quickly descended into acrimony.

Members clashed so fiercely that they adjourned without naming a single government official. At one point, the moderator ordered journalists to leave the room for a ''secret session," and top politicians, including interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, later walked out in anger.

''What will we say to the citizens who sacrificed their souls and cast their votes on Jan. 30? What is the delay?" Hussein al-Sadr, a Shi'ite Muslim cleric and member of Allawi's party, the Iraqi National Accord, lamented during the session.

Some legislators contend the drawn-out talks on forming a government since the January ballot are safeguarding minorities by seeking to reflect all the disparate groups in the country, but others say the process is thwarting the will of the majority by engaging in self-interested backroom debates on how to divide up the Cabinet seats and other positions.

''I demand to expose the details before the Iraqi people, so they'll be aware who is delaying the democratic process," said Shatha al-Mousawi, a member of the Shi'ite Islamist bloc that holds more than half the seats.

Otherwise, she told the assembly, ''You are hiding the enemies of the Iraqi people."

The one thing everyone seemed to agree on was that at this rate, it would be surprising if the Assembly met the August goal for drafting a permanent constitution that was laid out in a blueprint designed last year by US and Iraqi officials.

Under Iraq's transitional law, a two-thirds majority of the assembly is required to name an interim president and two vice presidents, who will then appoint a prime minister and a Cabinet who must be ratified by the assembly. This temporary government is to run the country until the constitution is approved and a permanent government is elected under that constitution.

The assembly's most important task is to draft a new constitution that will determine how Iraq is governed in years to come, involving sensitive issues such as the rights of ethnic minorities and the role of religion in state affairs. The interim law calls for a draft constitution to be written by August, a nationwide referendum to be held in October, and elections under that new constitution for a permanent government by December. But the law also allows the interim Assembly to delay the process by six months. Pushing elections back to mid-2006 could fuel instability and uncertainty.

With the committee that will draft the new constitution not even named yet, legislators said they would probably not make the August deadline.

Ali al-Dabagh, a Shi'ite from the United Iraqi Alliance, the largest bloc in the Assembly, said four months was ''not enough" time to draft the constitution. Hajim al-Hasani, one of the few Sunni members of the Assembly, said it would be ''very difficult," as did Khosrow Jaff, of the Kurdish Alliance.

Nearly every group has had a hand in the delay.

Until Monday, Kurdish and Shi'ite Arab leaders, seeking to band together to form the two-thirds majority needed to ratify the new government as well as to draw in disaffected Sunni Muslim Arabs, thought they had a deal on who would fill the roles of president, vice presidents, and speaker of the assembly.

They planned to hand the speaker post to a Sunni, but at the last minute the Sunni politician all sides had supported, interim President Ghazi al-Yawer, balked, saying he would make a weak speaker because his party holds just six seats.

Sunni members then asked for a 48-hour delay in order to agree on a new candidate, hinting that they favored Adnan al-Janabi, a member of the Assembly faction led by the US-backed Allawi.

That threw another wrench in the works, said Sunni legislator Mishaan al-Jabouri: Janabi said he would accept the post only with Allawi's blessing, and Allawi would agree only if the Shi'ite and Kurd bloc promised other key posts to people in his party, which fared poorly in the January ballot and has been virtually shut out of the talks.

Finally, more than two hours late, Assembly members filed into the meeting room yesterday with the modest goal of choosing a committee to draft the assembly's internal bylaws. Within minutes, though, angry words broke out on the floor over whether to give the Sunnis the delay they had requested to agree among themselves on a speaker candidate, or to force a vote immediately.

The moderator broke in and announced, ''We will now have a secret session and we demand that the media leave the hall."

Within seconds, in an echo of sanitized broadcasts from the Saddam Hussein-era, Iraqiya state-run television went dark. When screens flickered back on, footage of the meeting room was replaced with a popular folk singer and a band of traditional Arabic instruments performing the national anthem, ''My Homeland, My Homeland."

In a departure from Hussein's times, though, calls quickly flooded the station from Iraqis who complained that the Assembly was neglecting the country's problems -- especially after Allawi walked out, citing ''other obligations" which Jabouri, the Sunni legislator, said included a trip out of the country.

''I wonder what other obligations are more important than the National Assembly," the Iraqiya announcer told the audience.

Outside the hall, political leaders blamed each other for the delay in naming the government.

''We totally blame the Kurds," said Dabagh.

Sunnis blamed Shi'ites for trying to force candidates down their throats; Shi'ites blamed Sunnis for boycotting the elections and thus giving Kurds disproportionate clout; Kurds blamed the others for refusing to give them their due.

Sa'ad Jawad Qindeel, a United Iraqi Alliance member, blamed the interim law approved by former US occupation chief L. Paul Bremer III for requiring a 66 percent majority to form the government, rather than a simple majority.

A rare voice defending the process was that of Adil Abdel Mahdi, a top United Iraqi Alliance leader, who said, ''If this was an oppressive country, we would have gotten a government in one hour. It would have been a toy government."

The Kurds and Shi'ites said they had agreed to name a Shi'ite, Ibrahim Jaafari, as prime minister, and make Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani president. They also said they had reached agreement on the main issues dividing them: Kurds want to take a larger portion of revenues, incorporate the ethnically mixed city of Kirkuk into their northern autonomous region, and keep their militia, demands the Shi'ites oppose as threats to Iraq's unity and Arab identity.

But yesterday made clear that the two most powerful groups had deferred rather than resolved the disputes, since neither side could cite a single compromise on the points.

Party leaders agreed to reconvene on Sunday. Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, the cleric who heads the Shi'ite bloc, told Al Arabiya television that his group would wait until then for fractious Sunnis to agree on a candidate, but added a parting shot: If the Sunnis miss the deadline, the assembly will choose a speaker by majority vote.

Anne Barnard can be reached at Globe correspondent Sa'ad al-Izzi contributed to this story.

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