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Iraqi Assembly Sets New Date to Choose Leaders -- Again

Shiites, Kurds Strike Tentative Deal

By Caryle Murphy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 27, 2005; Page A17

BAGHDAD, March 26 -- Almost two months after historic national elections, Iraqis are still waiting for political leaders to form a new government.

On several occasions, party officials have said that the newly elected National Assembly, which held its symbolic opening session March 16, would reconvene on a certain day to take the first steps in forming a new government. But each time, the day came and went with no meeting.

The latest prediction came Saturday, when party sources said the 275-member assembly would convene Tuesday and, at a minimum, elect a speaker and two deputies. It is possible -- but by no means certain -- that the assembly could also elect a three-person Presidency Council, whose job will be to name a prime minister, the sources added.

"If there is going to be an election for speaker . . . I think that will be leading to selecting the Presidency Council," said Adnan Ali Kadhimi, spokesman for Shiite Muslim leader Ibrahim Jafari. "I think it's most likely that it's going to happen."

The reasons for the protracted delay have been both critical and prosaic: a lack of trust in political rivals' intentions, a desire to satisfy the political ambitions of key players, and a three-day break last week when Kurdish politicians went north to celebrate the New Year festival of Nowruz.

In addition, negotiators representing the two largest blocs in the new parliament -- Jafari's coalition of Shiite Arabs and an alliance of ethnic Kurdish parties -- spent several weeks discussing the Kurds' concerns about such issues as the role of religion in state decision-making and how quickly a new government would move to resolve the disputed status of Kirkuk, an oil-rich area that both Arabs and Kurds see as part of their historical patrimony.

Those negotiations have produced a four-page memorandum of understanding on a wide range of issues that officials on both sides say they intend to sign before a new government is formed.

A working draft of the memorandum obtained by The Washington Post states, among other things, that either one of the parties could withdraw from a coalition government if there were a serious dispute that proved "impossible to solve." That would force the government's resignation, and a new transitional government should be formed within a month, the document adds.

It also declares that the two sides are committed to involving parties that boycotted the elections, such as Sunni Arab groups, in drafting the country's permanent constitution. And it commits the signers to "speeding up" the incorporation of party militias into Iraqi security forces.

As for Kirkuk, where the ousted government of Saddam Hussein expelled Kurdish residents, settling Arabs in their place, the memo says that the new government "should take quick steps" to implement Article 58 of Iraq's interim constitution, which lays out economic and legal remedies for those deprived of property or employment.

Insisting that they want a national unity government, Kurds and Shiites say they have been encouraging interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi to agree to join the next administration. But Allawi, a secular-minded Shiite, has "not said no or not said yes," said a politician familiar with the negotiations who declined to be identified.

The Shiites and Kurds have also urged Sunni politicians to join the government and have sweetened the pot by allotting them some senior positions, including one of two vice presidential spots and the jobs of assembly speaker and defense minister. The aim is to reduce Sunni disaffection with the new government and deflate the insurgency, which is largely being carried out by Sunnis.

But the Sunnis' response has been hampered by the fact that their community is fragmented and lacks clear political leadership. Most Sunni politicians who are willing to participate in the government don't have much of a constituency.

"The Sunni Arabs are not organized in a unified political platform, and negotiating with them takes many twists and turns because there are many groups," said Hussain Shahristani, a senior member of the United Iraqi Alliance, the leading Shiite coalition.

Other cabinet positions have not yet been clinched by any group. The United Iraqi Alliance wants to appoint the finance and interior ministers, several sources said, and in this petroleum-rich country, every party wants to name the minister of oil.

Humam Hamoudi, a senior official with the Shiite alliance, said that such sectarian fastidiousness may be necessary for now "because we're in a transitional period" and people need to be reassured about their place in the country. "When the feeling of patriotism spreads between Iraqis," he added, "we can deal with Iraqis as Iraqis."

"Considering how new Iraq is to the political bargaining process, we shouldn't be too surprised that it's taken so long" to form a new government, said Ashraf Jehangir Qazi, special representative of the U.N. secretary general.

Meanwhile, as the insurgents continue to target Iraqis with bombs and bullets, the political talks have been mostly cordial, participants said.

It has been "decidedly civil," said one negotiator. "Iraqis have been very polite. We have two extremes: this and car bombs."

Special correspondent Khalid Saffar contributed to this report.

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