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Opening Session Set For Iraq's Legislature

Move Signals Progress in Factional Talks

By Caryle Murphy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 7, 2005; Page A16

BAGHDAD, March 6 -- Iraq's newly elected National Assembly will convene for the first time March 16, politicians said Sunday, an apparent sign that the leading Kurdish and Shiite Muslim coalitions are making progress in closed-door talks to form a new government.

"They decided together that the assembly will be held on the 16th of this month," said Rehda Jawad Taqi, spokesman for the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a leading Shiite party that met Saturday with other political groups and decided on the opening date.

Iraq's interim prime minister, Ayad Allawi, left, greets Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani after arriving for talks in the northern city of Sulaymaniyah. (Namir Noor-eldeen -- Reuters)

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Barham Salih, a Kurdish politician and interim deputy prime minister, told the Reuters news agency that the parties hope to reach an agreement by March 16. But even "if we don't . . . the National Assembly will begin its work and discussions will continue inside the assembly," he said.

The decision came as there has been rising public exasperation that more than a month after Iraq's historic elections on Jan. 30, the victorious parties have not yet reached an accord on who will occupy senior posts in the new government. Such an accord had been regarded by many Iraqi politicians as a necessary prelude to the convening of the assembly.

The opening session of the 275-seat assembly, another landmark in this country's modern history, will fall on the 17th anniversary of a chemical weapons attack by forces under Saddam Hussein on the Kurdish village of Halabja. Mustard gas and nerve agents were used in the 1988 assault, which left an estimated 5,000 Kurds dead and is regarded as one of the ousted Hussein government's most vicious acts against its citizens.

The announcement of the opening session demonstrated yet again the persuasive powers of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Iraq's most eminent Shiite Muslim cleric, who a day earlier had urged the haggling political parties to accelerate their discussions so the assembly could convene soon.

Sistani and three members of the United Iraqi Alliance, a predominantly Shiite Muslim coalition of parties that emerged from the elections with a slim majority in the assembly, met Saturday in the southern city of Najaf. Sheik Fawaz Jarba, one of the few Sunni Arabs in the alliance, told reporters after the meeting that Sistani had encouraged the group "to unite and to form the new government as soon as possible and not to delay this issue any longer," according to the Associated Press.

The alliance has nominated Ibrahim Jafari, head of the religious Dawa party, for prime minister. The alliance has been negotiating with the Kurdish parties, which hold 75 seats in the assembly, to secure their support for Jafari's bid.

Alliance officials have said they support Jalal Talabani, leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, for the mainly ceremonial position of president. Asked whether the Kurds had reciprocated by endorsing Jafari for prime minister during Saturday's talks, Taqi replied: "I can't say definitely. . . . But in general they support Jafari."

Interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, whose party won 40 seats in the elections and finished third, has also sought Kurdish backing for his effort to become prime minister in the new government.

Kurdish and Shiite politicians have said in recent days that they would like a Sunni Arab to become speaker of the assembly as a way to reach out to the Sunni population. The Sunnis, who dominated the government under Hussein, boycotted the elections in large numbers to protest the U.S. military presence in Iraq.

[Early Monday, insurgents launched a series of attacks in Baqubah, about 35 miles northeast of Baghdad, killing seven soldiers and five police, the Associated Press reported, citing police and medical officials.]

On Sunday, gunmen killed a prominent Sunni Arab politician, Hana Abdul Qader, as she left her home in Mosul.

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