Iraqi Parliament Opens, With a Warning

U.S. helicopters take off from a forward operating base as part of a U.S.-Iraqi operation against suspected insurgents north of Samarra.
U.S. helicopters take off from a forward operating base as part of a U.S.-Iraqi operation against suspected insurgents north of Samarra. (By Sgt. 1St Class Antony Joseph Via Associated Press)
By John Ward Anderson and Omar Fekeiki
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, March 17, 2006

BAGHDAD, March 16 -- As Iraqi lawmakers celebrated the opening session of parliament Thursday, secure inside the fortified Green Zone in a capital quieted by a day-long ban on vehicles, Sabieh Kadhum joined a funeral procession north of Baghdad for three ninth-grade girls killed by a roadside bomb while walking to school that morning.

"Suddenly there was this explosion, and we could see nothing but the body parts of those young girls flying in the air," Kadhum said. His son Mohammed, 7, was seriously injured in the blast near Baqubah, about 35 miles north of the capital.

Meanwhile, the U.S. military announced the start of what it called "the largest air assault operation" since the invasion of Iraq three years ago in a region about 75 miles north of Baghdad in Salahuddin province. Officials said more than 1,500 Iraqi and U.S. troops, more than 200 tactical vehicles and more than 50 aircraft are participating in the offensive, dubbed Operation Swarmer, which is expected to continue for several days.

"We have taken scores of detainees, including some of Arab nationality, and we found several cars rigged with explosives to be used as car bombs," said Lt. Nouri Ghaled of the Iraqi National Guard's 1st Emergency Battalion. "There are dead on both sides, and there is strong resistance from the insurgents."

Because of the continuing political deadlock over forging a coalition government, the inaugural session of Iraq's new parliament was a largely ceremonial, 40-minute affair.

Following Iraqi custom, the body's oldest member, secular lawmaker Adnan Pachachi, 83, opened the meeting and administered the oath of office to the 275-member body. He issued a stark warning for lawmakers to set aside their differences, end their squabbling and get on with the business of unifying and running the country.

Sectarian tension "threatens national disaster," Pachachi told the assembly. "We have to prove to the world" that a civil war in Iraq "will not happen. . . . Our democratic experience is stumbling so far. We have to protect it."

At the funeral procession, Kadhum had a blunt message for the politicians whose three-month dispute over forming a government has helped fuel sectarian and other violence: Forget about cabinet posts and "think of the people and their welfare, because we are now completely lost."

In comments after the parliament session, many lawmakers raised the same theme.

"Three years after the fall of the former regime, people have a right to ask: Where is the security, and where is the economy?" said Barham Saleh, a member of the Kurdish Coalition.

The need to virtually shut down the capital just so parliament could meet "shows what kind of a situation we are in now, and how important it is to come to some sort of agreement on forming a government of national unity," said Salih Mutlaq, a Sunni lawmaker. Such a government should include Shiite Muslims, Sunni Arabs, Kurds and secularists, he said, because "the more sectarianism there is in the government, the more violence there is in Iraq."

Fearing that the first meeting of the Council of Representatives, as the new parliament is called, could be a catalyst and target for violence, the transitional government imposed a driving curfew in the capital from 8 p.m. Wednesday to 4 p.m. Thursday to discourage car bombings and attacks against markets, mosques and other public places.

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