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Iraqi Assembly Gets Off To Quiet but Telling Start

By Caryle Murphy and John Ward Anderson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, March 17, 2005; Page A14

BAGHDAD, March 16 -- Dhari Fayad, temporary speaker of Iraq's newly elected National Assembly, stood before his fellow delegates for the first time Wednesday and recalled those "who sacrificed themselves . . . for the sake of the Iraqi people," including "the martyrs of the mass graves and the martyrs of the north of Iraq."

Suddenly, someone shouted at Fayad from the auditorium floor: "Kurdistan! Kurdistan!"

The outgoing Iraqi president, Ghazi Yawar, left, and the outgoing prime minister, Ayad Allawi, arrive for parliament's opening session. (Pool Photo/Ceerwan Aziz Via AP)

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Bowing to his colleague's wish that he refer to Kurdish-populated northern Iraq by another name, Fayad, 78, corrected himself and said, "Kurdistan."

The inaugural session of Iraq's new parliament was a largely ceremonial affair during which its 275 members took their oaths of office. But as Fayad's exchange with a Kurdish delegate suggests, it foreshadowed the daunting tasks that await this country's novice legislators, including finding the right balance between Kurdish aspirations for self-governance and Iraqi unity.

"At the gate of the new reign of freedom, dignity . . . and democracy . . . we have to recognize important duties imposed by this period," the prime minister of Iraq's outgoing interim government, Ayad Allawi, said in a brief address to the assembly.

Among the parliament's most urgent challenges are ending a violent insurgency, writing a permanent constitution and rebuilding a battered infrastructure. Six weeks after they were elected, leading members also must form a new government; some Iraqi officials said the process might take as long as two more weeks. Meanwhile, Allawi remains in charge.

But for many ordinary Iraqis, the fact that the assembly finally met was cause enough for celebration. Noting the risks they faced when they went to the polls on Jan. 30 and the insurgent threats against the parliament, they said the first session -- televised live across Iraq -- fulfilled a national vision.

"I personally look at the assembly as a symbol of our will and our hopes for a better future," said Saadiya Abdul Wahid, 55, a retired schoolteacher from Baghdad. "For the first time in my life, I, as an Iraqi, feel I have a voice in what's going on."

"Let's hope those who are sitting at the hall there will be serious and responsible, and not forget that being there is both an honor and a responsibility," said Mustafa Zubaidy, 45, a construction engineer. Though he expects a rough road ahead, he said he felt "optimistic the assembly will bring us a new Iraq -- democratic, pluralist and with a good, honest government that can do something for the people."

Similar feelings were expressed in the Shiite Muslim holy city of Najaf, about 90 miles south of Baghdad. Recalling the decades when Saddam Hussein ruled Iraq, laborer Tahseen Ali, 28, said: "The assembly under Saddam was just a toy, but now it is legal and elected, and that's why we trust it."

That about one-third of the new legislators are women means "this is the first time for us, as women, to see a true and trustworthy assembly meeting to achieve justice for men and women," said Maisaa Jabr, an education professor at Najaf University. "They are going to work for us. We are sure of that."

But if Iraq's new assembly enjoys a honeymoon, it is not likely to last long, given the huge daily burdens Iraqis face.

"Why can't we have electricity 24 hours a day like other civilized countries? Why can't we feel secure in our own homes?" said Bassem Abdul Ahad, 46, a spare parts merchant in the capital. "If those people put aside their personal interests, then we are in good shape. But if they remain centered on their personal concerns, then I feel pessimistic about this whole thing."

The assembly convened inside Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone under extraordinary security. About 15 minutes before the session began at 11:30 a.m., five muffled explosions, spread over about three minutes, could be heard inside the building where delegates were gathering. The blasts were apparently caused by mortar fire, and the U.S. military was investigating.

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