Delay Sought in Opening of Iraq Assembly
Shiite Alliance Wants Time to Build Support for Embattled Prime Minister Nominee

By John Ward Anderson and Omar Fekeiki
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, March 8, 2006

BAGHDAD, March 7 -- Iraq's political parties continued to wrangle over the formation of a new government Tuesday, as the ruling coalition of Shiite religious parties tried to delay the first meeting of parliament, scheduled for Sunday, to have more time to line up support for its nominee for prime minister.

President Jalal Talabani announced on Monday that the new National Assembly would have its first meeting on March 12, the deadline set by the constitution. But leaders of the Shiites' United Iraqi Alliance, who have the largest bloc in the 275-member parliament elected in December, said they were lobbying Talabani to postpone the first session for perhaps a week. No decision had been made, they said.

Iraq's parliament and government frequently ignore deadlines set by law, with few if any consequences. But Iraqi and U.S. officials have warned that delays in forming a government could intensify the factional tensions already gripping the country and might intensify sectarian violence.

Haitham al-Husseini, a spokesman for the leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, one of the largest parties in the Shiite alliance, said the coalition had asked Talabani for the delay and was waiting for his response. The postponement was necessary, he said, "to have more time for talks and discussions to achieve an agreement among the political blocs on the issues of the prime ministerial candidate and the presidential candidate."

The Shiites nominated transitional Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jafari to continue in office when the next government is formed. But Jafari is opposed by Sunni Arab and Kurdish parties in particular for what they see as his lackluster record in taming violence and speeding up reconstruction.

"There must be an agreement among the main political blocs, especially the United Iraqi Alliance and the Kurdistan coalition, on the basic issues of forming the new government" before the parliament convenes, said a spokesman for Jafari, Abdul Razzaq Kadhumi.

Meanwhile, an Interior Ministry official, who would not be quoted by name, said the slaying Monday of Maj. Gen. Mubdar Hatim Hazya al-Dulaimi, the senior commander of Iraqi troops in Baghdad, was carried out by a sniper who shot the general as he was getting out of his vehicle. Dulaimi, one of the highest-ranking officers to be killed in the three-year conflict here, died from a single shot to the head, the ministry official said. No other people were injured, he said.

The incident, which is under investigation by Iraq's army, raised the possibility that the people involved had inside information about Dulaimi's activities. "The gunmen had very precise information," a Defense Ministry official told the Reuters news agency.

Also Tuesday, the senior British troop commander in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Nick Houghton, said in an interview with London's Daily Telegraph newspaper that he hoped British troops would be out of Iraq by the summer of 2008, with withdrawals beginning as early as this spring. U.S. politicians and military officials have avoided setting a timetable for pulling out, saying it could fuel the insurgency.

"There is a fine line between staying too long and leaving too soon," Houghton said, according to the newspaper. "A military transition over two years has a reasonable chance of avoiding the pitfalls of overstaying our welcome but gives us the opportunity of consolidating the Iraqi security forces."

He said the timetable would work only if Iraqi leaders formed a national unity government and if sectarian tensions did not worsen, the paper said.

Al-Jazeera television broadcast videotape Tuesday showing three of four kidnapped activists from the group Christian Peacemakers Teams who disappeared Nov. 26. The fourth captive -- Tom Fox, 54, of Clear Brook, Va. -- was not shown on the 25-second tape. A statement that purportedly accompanied the tape said the hostages would be killed unless all Iraqi prisoners were released from Iraqi and U.S. prisons, but it did not set a deadline.

Violence continued across Iraq on Tuesday, killing more than 15 people.

Gunmen fired at the office of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr in the city of Baqubah, about 35 miles northeast of Baghdad, killing three workers and wounding another, local police reported. A police officer was killed when a roadside bomb exploded near his patrol in central Baqubah, according to police Lt. Col. Adnan Lafta, and in the afternoon, two Iraqi soldiers were killed by a car bomb in Khalis, about 10 miles northwest of Baqubah.

Three Iraqi police officers were killed in an ambush in Baiji, 120 miles north of Baghdad. In Baghdad, two police officers were killed and three wounded when a car bomb struck their patrol, and a guard reportedly was killed in an attack on a Sunni mosque in the western part of the capital.

Two roadside bombs targeting U.S. troops in Baghdad killed one bystander and injured five.

Special correspondents Hassan Shammari in Baqubah and Saad Sarhan in Najaf contributed to this report.

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