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Iraqis Elect a Sunni as Speaker of the Assembly

April 04, 2005|Alissa J. Rubin | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — Iraqi lawmakers broke a logjam that for weeks had blocked the formation of the new government, voting overwhelmingly Sunday to elect a Sunni Muslim as speaker of the National Assembly. A Shiite Muslim and an ethnic Kurd were elected as his deputies.

The step was only the first of three required to set up the government but appeared to signal that the intense behind-the-scenes wrangling since Jan. 30 elections finally had begun to yield fruit.

The next steps -- the election of a council made up of a president and two vice presidents, and that group's selection of a prime minister, who must be approved by the assembly -- probably will be completed by the weekend, the second anniversary of the fall of Baghdad. The prime minister will select a Cabinet a week or two after that, lawmakers said.

"Basically we passed an important hurdle today, we almost have an agreement on the presidency council. Now we're engaged in a real way," said Barham Salih, a Kurd and deputy prime minister in the current interim government. "Today we have proven that we are capable of making our country march forward, without looking into our narrow interests of the different entities."

The election of Hachim Hassani as speaker was cheered by U.S. officials, who have been pressing various Iraqi factions to settle their differences and form a new government.

"We thought it was a very good day, and [Iraqis] should be very pleased," said a U.S. Embassy spokesman in Baghdad who requested anonymity.

"It is a significant step forward, and a reflection of the fact that various entities are consulting and moving forward," the spokesman said in a telephone interview.

The optimistic tone echoed the general mood among the assembly members, who might well have been relieved that there was no repeat of the acrimonious scene at a meeting last week when they were unable to decide on a speaker. At that gathering, participants began to shout at one another and the session's leaders then abruptly ordered television cameras off and the media out.

Although the cameras remained on Sunday in the tradition of more open government associated with the West, there was a striking lack of discussion or public dissent about the choices for the speakership.

Hassani, a Sunni, was elected speaker. Hussein Shahristani, a Shiite, and Aref Taifour, a member of the Kurdish Democratic Party, were named deputy speakers.

With the choice of Hassani, the top three jobs in the new government in effect have been filled. Although the presidency council has not yet been named, there is no longer significant dissent about the choice of Jalal Talabani, a leader of the Kurdish alliance, as president. Similarly, there is wide agreement that Ibrahim Jafari -- a Shiite leader of the United Iraqi Alliance, which holds a majority of seats in the assembly -- will be chosen prime minister. The Kurdish alliance makes up the second-largest bloc in the assembly.

"It's a significant achievement. They've now got the top Shiite, the top Kurd and top Sunni," said Joost Hiltermann, director of the International Crisis Group's office in Jordan, which does research on Iraq.

The next hurdle is the distribution of ministries. Already there has been considerable inflation in the number of ministries, and more could be added to create enough posts to satisfy the demand from different groups for a place at the table.

The two biggest questions are whether interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi's Iraqi List bloc, which won 40 seats in the 275-member assembly, will be part of the government.

Intensive negotiations are underway to determine how its members could be included and in what positions.

Also in dispute is the allocation of the top five ministries, particularly the defense and oil ministries. Both Shiites and Kurds lay claim to the Oil Ministry.

Shiites and Kurds agreed to award the speakership to one of the 17 Sunni Arab members in the legislative body. The move is seen as an effort to reach out to the embittered community that largely boycotted the election. Sunnis, a minority in Iraq, held a privileged position before the war under ousted leader Saddam Hussein.

Hassani's selection showed a measure of restraint by the Shiite-dominated United Iraqi Alliance, which had wanted to install one of the few Sunnis who are part of its coalition in the speaker's chair. An alliance member probably would have been seen by Sunnis as a puppet of Shiite interests.

However, Hassani also faces difficulties winning the support of the larger Sunni community: He will be working with Shiite and Kurdish leaders, and spent more than 20 years in the U.S.

Hassani, who has been the interim minister of industry and minerals, returned to Iraq two years ago. He was named to the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council, which helped oversee the country for a time, and later made a minister.

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