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.
Police reported no major violence in Baghdad, but an Interior Ministry spokesman, Maj. Mohammed Sultan, said Thursday morning that police had discovered 25 bodies in the previous 24 hours, bringing to more than 110 the number of bodies found in the capital since Monday. Many have been found shot in the head with their hands tied, continuing an apparent cycle of sectarian killings that has gripped Iraq since the Feb. 22 bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra, about 65 miles north of Baghdad.
Four more bodies were found in Baghdad during the day, the Reuters news agency reported.
Violence continued to rage outside the capital. In addition to the children killed and injured near Baqubah, at least 13 people were killed and 41 were wounded in car bombings, shootings and other attacks. One man was shot when a large demonstration to commemorate people killed in a deadly gas attack 18 years ago in Halabja, in the Kurdish region in the north, turned into a violent protest over poor government services, particularly electricity and water supplies, according to local news accounts.
The U.S. military said in a statement that a 24-year-old male detainee at Abu Ghraib prison died Wednesday "of apparent natural causes." It said the death was being investigated.
In Baghdad, the long-awaited opening of parliament began a 60-day period during which the legislature is required to elect a national president and approve a prime minister and cabinet, adding pressure on the political leadership to expedite formation of a government.
The Council of Representatives is Iraq's first permanent, democratically elected parliament since the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003 that toppled Saddam Hussein. A temporary legislature sat for most of last year, charged with crafting a constitution and laying the ground for the Dec. 15 elections that brought the current parliament to power.
But the opening session was delayed by intense wrangling among the main factions: Shiite Muslims, who have the largest block of seats with 130; Kurds, who have 58 seats; Sunni Arabs, who have 55 seats; and secularists, who control 29 seats.
A key sticking point is the disagreement among Sunni Arabs and Kurds over the Shiites' nominee for prime minister, Ibrahim al-Jafari, who has served as transitional prime minister for about a year. Sunnis and Kurds complain that Jafari has not done enough to control violence or revitalize the economy.
Jafari told reporters that it could take another month or longer to reach agreement on a government. Many Iraqis were dismayed or angered by his comments.
"I was furious," said Sarmad Najim, 30, a computer engineer in Baghdad. "It's ridiculous that they keep doing this while every day tens of people are being kidnapped and killed."
"We are fed up with their usual sayings that democracy and the political process are succeeding," said Abdul Muhsin Salim, 45, a high school teacher. "We don't need this. We need water, electricity, reconstruction and safety."
Acknowledging that political chaos is contributing to a rise in sectarian violence, top political leaders from all the factions began marathon meetings this week to bridge their differences.
Ridha Jawad Taqi, a member of the Shiite United Iraqi Alliance, said there was agreement among all the parties that a national unity government is necessary.
It remains to be seen whether a broad coalition can be achieved. U.S. and Iraqi officials hope that Sunni Arabs, in particular, can be persuaded to join the government, believing that their participation in political leadership will help defuse a deadly Sunni-led insurgency that has targeted U.S., Iraqi and allied troops as well as civilians.
Increasingly, political leaders also argue that Sunni participation is important to help prevent a slow descent into civil war. More than 1,000 people were killed in the days after the Samarra bombing, underscoring the growing divide between Iraq's Shiites, who make up about 60 percent of the populace, and Sunni Arabs, who account for about 20 percent.
Special correspondents Hassan Shammari in Baqubah, Mohanad Saif Aldin in Tikrit and Bassam Sebti and K.I. Ibrahim in Baghdad contributed to this report.