Iraqi parliament hit by walkout

By Leila Fadel
Friday, November 12, 2010

BAGHDAD - Iraq's parliament achieved an important milestone Thursday, agreeing on who would hold the country's top leadership spots after more than eight months of acrimonious negotiations. But a dramatic walkout by members of the Sunni-backed Iraqiya bloc marred the nearly five-hour session and underscored the deep divisions and distrust that dominate the country's political system.

The day's events, which appeared to catch U.S. officials off guard, followed a deal late Wednesday on a power-sharing arrangement among Iraq's biggest political factions, and they were a vivid illustration of both the dysfunction that remains here and the small glimmers of hope about the future.

Iraqiya's move also raised the prospect that some Sunni Arabs, disaffected by the political process, could take up arms again, just as the United States moves toward a planned withdrawal of forces by the end of 2011.

U.S. hopes for leaving behind a stable Iraq rest heavily on the establishment of a fully representative government that all of the country's major factions can support. But Thursday's chaotic session reflects how challenging that will be.

Despite the twists and turns, lawmakers reappointed President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, who renamed incumbent Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, as prime minister. In addition, a member of Iraqiya was elected speaker of parliament. With the three top slots resolved, Maliki will now begin to distribute ministries and other top jobs, a process that has the potential to be as divisive as the initial phase of government formation.

The moment of high drama came when members of the Iraqiya bloc - which, by a slim margin, won more seats in Iraq's 325-member parliament than any other bloc - walked out of the session to protest what they called duplicitous tactics by political rivals and broken promises to roll back a controversial law that they feel unfairly targeted their members.

"They have to know that they cannot run the parliament the way they want," said Falah al-Naqib, a legislator from Iraqiya. He called the walkout a strong and important message of Iraqiya's power. "There is no trust. The political process is very fragile. You can see that there are major differences. They should at least respect their promises."

In Washington, administration officials professed calm in the midst of the Iraqi storm, which they described as an unsurprising upheaval that would soon be smoothed, rather than a cause for concern that the deal was collapsing. The more important take-away from the day, officials said, was the election of an Iraqiya speaker and Kurdish president according to plan. U.S. officials had been pushing a power-sharing arrangement as a way to break Maliki's monopoly on power.

The walkout dealt a setback to what was an eagerly awaited turning point in the impasse that has paralyzed Iraqi politics since the inconclusive March 7 elections. After the departure of Iraqiya, the remaining lawmakers voted to elect Talabani to the presidency. Some observers feared the decision to proceed in the face of Iraqiya's departure could eventually ignite a national crisis.

But Jaber al-Jaberi, a top Iraqiya official, said the bloc would probably consider returning to parliament if a "compromise solution" was reached and Iraqiya received assurances that the other groups in the new government would make good on their promises.

Thursday's session had been expected to go smoothly after all major blocs agreed late Wednesday to participate, following promises about how positions in the new government would be distributed. But the precarious nature of that pact quickly became apparent.

After Osama al-Nujaifi of Iraqiya was elected speaker of parliament, along with two deputies from the Shiite Sadrist bloc and the Kurdish alliance, Nujaifi asked that details of the government formation deal be ratified through a vote. These included lifting a ban that precludes three Iraqiya members from participating in the government for alleged allegiance to Saddam Hussein's outlawed Baath Party.

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