Five weeks have passed since the Jan. 30 elections, and still no government has been formed in Iraq, though the tasks facing the assembly are immense. -- AP's Sameer Yacoub reported on Saturday that "The main sticking point in forming a government has been the alliance's inability to broker a deal with the Kurds." -- Under pressure from the Ayatollah Sistani, the United Iraqi Alliance met Saturday and agreed to try to reach an agreement and convene the national assembly by Mar. 15, but already two previous deadlines have been missed. -- The Washington Post reported Saturday that ordinary Iraqis are unhappy at the delays, which have already caused the defection of two members of the United Iraqi Alliance coalition, reducing its majority in the yet-to-meet constituent assembly to one (138 out of 275 seats). -- "'We are sick and tired of all the statements, satellite shows and interviews, as we see the time passing without the government being formed, or the new assembly meeting,' Jalal Edeen Sagheer, a senior Shiite cleric and newly elected member of parliament, said during his Friday sermon at the Buratha Mosque in Baghdad. 'Not much time is left for writing the constitution.'" -- A Reuters report indicated that the Kurds intend to use this feeling of urgency to give them leverage in bargaining. -- Iyad Allawi is hoping that the difficulties may lead delegates to reappoint him as prime minister, as a compromise solution.[1,3] -- One may speculate that this is probably the outcome that the Bush administration is trying to achieve....
SHIITE LEADER CALLS FOR UNITY IN IRAQ
By Sameer N. Yacoub
March 5, 2005
BAGHDAD -- Iraq's dominant Shiite-led alliance set a mid-March deadline to form a government, prodded to action Saturday by spiritual leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who demanded progress after more than a month of post-election haggling.
Members of the United Iraqi Alliance, the big winner in the Jan. 30 elections, met in central Baghdad and agreed to try to form a government and convene the 275-member National Assembly by March 15 after al-Sistani demanded that they stop bickering.
The U.S. military, meanwhile, said it had launched an "aggressive" investigation into the shooting at an American checkpoint that wounded an Italian journalist just freed after a month in captivity and killed the Italian intelligence agent who had negotiated her freedom. Giuliana Sgrena, 56, who worked for Italy's left-wing Il Manifesto, flew ome Saturday.
CNN also broadcast what appeared to be new photographs of Jordanian-born Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the al-Qaida-linked militant believed responsible for many of the bombings, kidnappings, and beheadings that have taken place in Iraq.
It was unclear when or where the photos were taken, but they showed a smiling, bearded man with closely cut hair who is believed to be al-Zarqawi. The photos show the man either sitting alone against a white wall or seated next to two different men. The authenticity of the photos could not be verified.
The Shiite-led alliance, which already has missed two target dates, gained 140 seats in the assembly during the election but is hoping to get the backing from the 75 seats held by Kurdish political parties so it can muster the required two-thirds majority to ensure control of top posts in the new government.
Sheik Fawaz al-Jarba, one of the few Sunni Arabs in the alliance, said after meeting al-Sistani in Najaf that the elderly cleric urged the group "to unite and to form the new government as soon as possible and not to delay this issue any longer, and that the interests of Iraq and Iraqis should be their first priority."
Mohammed Bahr al-Ulloum, an alliance deputy, said they agreed the National Assembly would convene "no later than March 15."
Another deputy, Fattah al-Sheik, said pressure would be put on interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi and the Kurds so a cabinet could be ready by that date.
Allawi's party finished third with 40 seats in the assembly. He has been trying to build his own coalition in an effort to keep his job.
The alliance wants to name Ibrahim al-Jaafari, the leader of the conservative Islamic Dawa Party and one of the country's two current interim vice presidents, to the prime minister's post.
"Al-Sistani demanded that we put aside minor matters and that we should be united. I am not comfortable with the delay in holding the assembly," said Mudhar Shawkat, a senior official in Ahmad Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress.
Shawkat said failure to convene the assembly "represents an insult to Iraqi voters."
Jalal Talabani, leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, one of the two parties in the Kurdish coalition, has long been the Kurds' choice for president.
Abbas Hassan Mousa al-Bayati, head of the alliance's Turkomen bloc, said a parliament speaker would be named on the day the National Assembly convened.
"It seems that the general opinion is leaning toward the parliament speaker being a Sunni Arab and the president being Mr. Talabani," al-Bayati said.
A Sunni Arab speaker would go far toward appeasing the minority, which is believed to make up the core of the insurgency and, like the Kurds, makes up 15-20 percent of Iraq's estimated 26 million people. But unlike the Kurds, Sunni Arabs largely stayed away from the election to protest the U.S. presence in the country.
Al-Bayati said the candidates would include interim President Ghazi al-Yawer and interim Minister of Industry Hajim al-Hassani.
The main sticking point in forming a government has been the alliance's inability to broker a deal with the Kurds.
Kurdish leaders have demanded constitutional guarantees for their northern regions, including self-rule and reversal of what they call the "Arabization" of areas including oil-rich Kirkuk. Ousted Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein relocated Iraqi Arabs to the region in a bid to secure the oil fields there.
"Kurdish demands are negotiable. We can meet them 100 percent if the demands do not affect others, such Arabs and Turkomen. If this is not achievable, then we should look for compromise," said Redha Jawad Taqi, a spokesman for the main Shiite political group, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq.
Adnan Mufti, who heads the PUK office in Irbil, said talks between Kurdish officials and the head of the alliance, Abdel Aziz al-Hakim, were "positive" and the Kurds were "optimistic."
In violence Saturday, a roadside bomb killed three Iraqi army soldiers in Baghdad on Saturday, Wisam Muhsin, an official at al-Kindi hospital said. Four soldiers were injured.
Sgrena left Baghdad in an Italian government plane and was met at Rome airport by Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. She had been abducted in Baghdad on Feb. 4.
The circumstances of Sgrena's release from captivity were unclear. Soon after she was freed, a U.S. armored vehicle opened fire on the car carrying her to the airport on Friday. Intelligence officer Nicola Calipari likely died trying to protect her, she said.
Berlusconi, an ally of the United States who has kept Italian troops in Iraq despite public opposition at home, has demanded an explanation from the United States, and President Bush assured him the shooting would be investigated.
In Baghdad, U.S. Col. Bob Potter said coalition forces were "aggressively investigating the incident."
About 200 foreigners have been abducted in Iraq in the past year, and more than 30 of the hostages were killed.
In other violence Saturday, gunmen in two vehicles in Abu Ghraib, west of Baghdad, killed an Iraqi army officer, said Capt. Akram al-Zubaie.
A Turkish driver and an Iraqi Kurdish official also were killed in two separate attacks in the northern city of Mosul, witnesses said.
--Associated Press reporter Qasim Abdul-Zahra in Baghdad contributed to this report.
DRAWN-OUT TALKS ON ASSEMBLY UPSET IRAQIS
By Salih Saif Aldin and John Ward Anderson
** Political Wrangling Stalls Formation of New Government **
March 6, 2005
TIKRIT -- Five weeks ago, Hasan Khatab Omar defied dire warnings and cast a ballot in Iraq's first free elections in almost half a century. Insurgents branded him a traitor and bombed his house, he said, and neighbors called him a government agent.
"We thought it would be for a noble cause," said Omar, 55, the owner of a small food shop in this predominantly Sunni city about 90 miles north of Baghdad. "Now we are weeks later, and what has changed? Nothing. I think I risked my life for nothing."
As negotiations over the formation of a new government drag on, many Iraqis who overcame fears of attacks at polling stations and threats of retaliation are beginning to wonder why the process is taking so long, and whether voting was worth the risk.
The opening of the new National Assembly has been delayed twice and is now on hold while political leaders wrangle over issues such as how much autonomy Kurds will have in the northern part of the country, what role religion will have in the new government and which parties and people will get which cabinet posts.
Members of the United Iraqi Alliance Saturday set a March 15 deadline to form a government, prodded to action by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, who had demanded progress, the Associated Press reported.
Iraqis say they fear the delay is fueling the insurgency and hindering reconstruction efforts. Hundreds of people have been killed in almost daily attacks since the Jan. 30 elections.
"They turned their backs on the people because they're busy dividing shares in the government," said Yousif Mohammed Tahir, 30, an electrician in the northern city of Mosul. "The security situation is worse than before. They promised a better life, but they lied."
Two members of the United Iraqi Alliance, a coalition of Shiite Muslim parties that captured a slim majority in the 275-member parliament, bolted from the alliance Friday, complaining about the lack of political progress. Their defection would decrease the number of seats the alliance controls from 140 to 138, leaving it with a one-seat majority.
"It's been a month since the Iraqis voted for us. They trusted us with their lives, but we haven't achieved any agreement yet," one of the lawmakers, Ali Yousha of the Unified National Coalition, said in a telephone interview.
"The other members of the assembly are still negotiating and dividing the government's posts," he said. "We are not interested in posts. We want to start resolving the problems of the people and writing the constitution."
Under Iraq's interim constitution, the assembly is supposed to draft a new constitution, submit it to a nationwide referendum by October and organize elections for a permanent government in December.
"We are sick and tired of all the statements, satellite shows and interviews, as we see the time passing without the government being formed, or the new assembly meeting," Jalal Edeen Sagheer, a senior Shiite cleric and newly elected member of parliament, said during his Friday sermon at the Buratha Mosque in Baghdad. "Not much time is left for writing the constitution."
But the formation of the government has become entangled in tough negotiations, principally between the United Iraqi Alliance and a coalition of Kurdish parties. The Kurds, who make up between 15 percent and 20 percent of the population, and the Shiites, who make up about 60 percent, have been natural allies because both were brutally oppressed by the Sunni minority that dominated the government under Saddam Hussein.
Among the key issues being discussed, officials familiar with the talks said, are how to divide oil revenues among the ethnically different regions of the country, how to improve the security situation, how to pull Iraq's minority Sunnis, many of whom did not vote, into the government and how to draft the constitution.
The Kurdish alliance has 75 seats in the new parliament. The Shiite's United Iraqi Alliance needs the Kurds' votes to form the two-thirds majority in parliament required for approval of many of the key government posts.
Members of the United Iraqi Alliance are lobbying hard to get the Kurds to join them, but the Kurds are driving a hard bargain and demanding concrete commitments in exchange for support, according to Ibrahim Jafari, the Shiite alliance's choice for prime minister.
The Kurds are particularly interested in cementing their control over the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, participants in the talks said. They are pushing to have Jalal Talabani, leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, appointed president and are demanding that the Kurdish nationalist militia, called the pesh merga, not be disbanded.
If Talabani were president and Jafari were prime minister, political analysts say the third key political position in the country, speaker of parliament, probably would go to a Sunni.
In an interview, Jafari counseled patience.
"We're very eager to conclude this procedure as soon as possible," he said. "But we are more eager that this conclusion should be stable, should be fair."
On Saturday in Baghdad, Ali Abdulwahab Ameen, 31, a teacher, agreed that the process required patience. "This is a democracy," he said. "We waited for many years to have an elected government, and we can wait for a few days more."
--Anderson reported from Baghdad. Staff writer Caryle Murphy and special correspondents Naseer Nouri and Omar Fekeiki in Baghdad, Dlovan Brwari in Mosul and Saad Sarhan in Najaf contributed to this report.
KURDS SEEK SHI'ITE ASSURANCES OF DEMOCRATIC IRAQ
By Mariam Karouny
March 5, 2005
BAGHDAD (Reuters) -- A powerful Kurdish coalition said on Saturday that it would not back Iraq's main Shi'ite alliance in the race for prime minister without assurances that they would not impose an Islamic fundamentalist state.
"Political Islam is a fact in our country. But I don't want Iraq to be turned into a religious, sectarian, fundamentalist state, this will not be accepted," said Barham Salih, deputy prime minister of Iraq and senior negotiator for the Kurdish bloc.
"That is why we are looking for real assurances that would prevent Iraq from turning into a sectarian and fundamentalist state . . . We reject religious control over government organizations, and this is a very important issue."
After finishing second in Iraq's historic Jan. 30 elections, the Kurds have emerged as potential kingmakers in negotiations over who will fill top government posts.
The Shi'ite United Iraqi Alliance, which won a narrow majority in the polls, has nominated Ibrahim al-Jaafari as its candidate for prime minister.
Jaafari has been negotiating with the Kurdish alliance which could give him the two-thirds majority he needs for the top job.
Interim prime minister Iyad Allawi, whose list finished third, is fighting to keep his job and said he was in discussions with other parties, including the Kurds.
DEMOCRACY OR ISLAMIC FUNDAMENTALISM?
Salih said Jaafari was in a strong position but stressed that Kurdish backing for the Shi'ite alliance hinged on guarantees they would not try to impose religion on the state.
"There is no doubt that Dr. Ibrahim al-Jaafari is a strong candidate and has the parliamentary weight to be candidate to this post. But also we care more for the framework of the government and the political program and the assurances," he said.
"Is it going to be a religious state or a democratic state that would respect the Islamic religion? We call for the second option and we must work to get the guarantees."
Protracted talks have already had consequences in a country where polls have brought a dramatic shift in power to the majority Shi'ites after decades of Sunni domination under Saddam Hussein.
Many Sunnis boycotted the polls or did not vote for fear of violence. So officials say securing a sectarian balance in the new government is a must.
Two members of the United Iraqi Alliance have broken away from the bloc, highlighting the bickering that has delayed the formation of a government more than one month after the poll.
Parliament has yet to meet in a country faced with relentless suicide bombings, kidnappings and rampant crime, and which has been starved of investment.
Salih said it was important that the alliance settle political issues such as the relation between religion and state and present a clear government plan before deciding on who will win control of key ministries.
"We want the national assembly to meet as soon as possible. What is preferred is that we agree on the basics before the meeting," said Salih, adding that he did not expect parliament to convene in coming days.
"We are waiting for them (the alliance) to settle their political framework since they are the majority in the parliament. They have to settle their political stands before getting into any alliance with other parties."