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Two Months In and Still Foundering

Iraqi Assembly Again Fails to Elect Speaker or Fill Other Key Positions

By Caryle Murphy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 30, 2005; Page A08

BAGHDAD, March 29 -- Iraq's new National Assembly had just convened for its second session Tuesday when a wide-girthed Shiite Muslim cleric, Hussein Sadr, appealed to his fellow deputies to quickly elect a speaker.

"Public opinion on the street is now waiting for some action by us. What can we answer?" he said. "What shall we say to history?"

Abdul Aziz Hakim, a Shiite, left, interim President Ghazi Yawar, center, and interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi at second session. (Wathiq Khuzaie -- AP)

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A female delegate clad head-to-toe in black also jumped up to demand answers. "There are 17 Sunni personalities inside this assembly, and to choose one of them is not difficult," she shouted, referring to the vote for speaker. "Please clarify this."

Dhari Fayad, 78, who is temporarily presiding over the assembly by virtue of being its oldest member, had heard enough.

"Now, I ask the media to leave the hall, because we're having a secret session," he said, a little more than 20 minutes into the meeting. A collective groan rose from reporters in a nearby room as the televisions showing the proceedings abruptly switched to an Iraqi singer belting out "My Homeland, My Homeland."

The session was closed so Iraq's newly minted politicians could once again find a way out of an embarrassing failure to start forming the country's first freely elected government. Two months after the assembly was elected, negotiations among the various religious and ethnic groups appear to be increasingly bogged down, as politicians bicker over who will fill top posts.

"I think there is a crisis, but I wouldn't characterize it as a fatal one," Industry Minister Hachim Hasani, a Sunni Muslim politician, said after Tuesday's meeting.

In Washington, President Bush told a group of Iraqi law students and religious figures: "The free people of Iraq are now doing what Saddam Hussein never could -- making Iraq a positive example for the entire Middle East."

The National Assembly "includes people and parties with differing visions for the future of their country," Bush added. "In a democratic Iraq, these differences will be resolved through debate and persuasion instead of force and intimidation."

By Tuesday night, the 275-member assembly had set itself a new deadline, agreeing to reconvene Sunday to try again to elect a speaker. But in a country besieged by a brutal insurgency and economic turmoil, the public's patience is wearing thin.

"What those people are doing is funny. What are they doing? Are they mocking the people?" asked Ahmed Safaa, 35, an engineer shopping in Baghdad's Karrada neighborhood. "We've been told that these people are going to represent us. If they cannot represent themselves, how can they represent us? . . . I don't want to say that I regret voting in the elections, but I am afraid that what we did at that time will fade away."

"We don't care about nationality or religion," said Karam Mohammed, 25, a college graduate who works as a taxi driver. "We just want people to care about us and take this country to the safe side. . . . The members of the assembly should hurry up, because people like me are waiting for the last chance that will bring prosperity to the country."

Several lawmakers interviewed as they waited for the start of Tuesday's session conceded that at the current pace, the assembly likely would not meet the Aug. 15 deadline for writing a permanent constitution.

"Really, it's going to be very difficult," Hasani, the industry minister, said. "You can't write a constitution in three months. Wishful thinking."

The United Iraqi Alliance, the predominantly Shiite Muslim coalition that, with 140 seats, holds a slim majority in the assembly, has been bargaining with parliament's second largest bloc, the 75-seat Kurdish coalition, to form a government for several weeks.

The two sides had been saying they were close to an agreement. But in recent days, the interim prime minister, Ayad Allawi, whose bloc controls 40 opposition seats, showed renewed interest in possibly joining the government.

That led to more negotiations, which apparently have not satisfied anyone. Talks are unlikely to progress much in the next few days, because Allawi left Iraq on Tuesday to travel abroad, two sources said.

Hoping to form a government that would capture the loyalty of Iraq's disaffected Sunni Arabs, a minority that largely boycotted the elections, the Shiites and Kurds have reserved some posts for Sunnis in the government, most notably the assembly speakership.

After the leading candidate abruptly withdrew Monday, Sunni parliamentary members could not agree on an alternative in time for Tuesday's session. "We have to come up with a nominee for that position" by Sunday, Hasani said. He is not interested in the job, he said, because he prefers to be defense minister, another post widely expected to go to a Sunni.

If the Sunnis do not produce their own candidate by Sunday, the assembly will elect a speaker anyway, several lawmakers said.

Correspondent Ellen Knickmeyer and special correspondents Khalid Saffar and Bassam Sebti contributed to this report.

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