Mon, 07 Mar 2005

From: Reuters

Iraqi assembly to meet, hopes for new government

Mariam Karouny, Reuters/Baghdad

Iraq will hold a meeting of its newly elected National Assembly within 10 days with or without a new government, the deputy prime minister said on Sunday, hoping to instill a sense of order amid the daily violence.

Five weeks after elections, the lack of agreement between leading parties over who will lead the new government has fanned fears insurgent violence will spiral unchecked.

Suicide attacks, car bombings and kidnappings are a regular feature of life in Baghdad and elsewhere. U.S. troops, targeted by insurgents, have also been criticized for fueling violence by over-zealous attempts to crackdown on guerrillas.

The new Iraqi government faces the daunting task of trying to establish security and negotiate a withdrawal of U.S. troops.

Many Iraqis voice frustration that politicians have delayed debate on such matters because of political wrangling.

Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih said he hoped politicians would end horse-trading over top posts soon, so the National Assembly could meet for the first time.

"The meeting will be on March 16 and we agreed to continue meetings (on a government) and hope to reach an agreement by then," Salih told Reuters. "If we don't reach an agreement then the National Assembly will begin its work and discussions will continue inside the assembly."

March 16 is the anniversary of the 1988 Saddam Hussein-ordered chemical attack on the northern Kurdish town of Halabja, which killed 5,000 people. Salih had met with alliance leader Abdel Aziz al-Hakim on Saturday.

The main point of contention between the three leading parties is who will be prime minister.

A Shiite Muslim alliance which won a slim parliamentary majority in the Jan. 30 polls, gaining power after decades of Sunni domination under Saddam, has chosen Ibrahim Jaafari as its candidate for prime minister. Pro-U.S. interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi is also bidding to keep his job.

Both have launched a charm offensive with the Kurds who, having come second in the elections, can make or break a deal. The Shiite alliance needs the Kurdish vote to secure the two- thirds majority required to select a new government.

The Kurdish coalition said on Saturday it would only back the Shiite alliance when it was assured the alliance would not impose an Islamic fundamentalist state. The Kurds also want clarity on the status of the ethnically mixed city of Kirkuk.

For all parties, a balance of sectarian interests is crucial to boost the government's legitimacy after many Sunni Arabs boycotted the polls or were too afraid to vote.

Sunnis have led an insurgency bent on bringing down the U.S.- backed interim government and stalling efforts to form the new cabinet. Al-Qaeda's wing in Iraq, led by Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, has been behind many of the bloodiest attacks and the beheading of several hostages.

Sheik Fawaz al-Jarba, one of the few Sunni Arabs in the alliance, said after meeting spiritual leader Grand Ayatollah Ali 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."

The U.S. military said on Sunday 400 suspected terrorists had been detained in Anbar province, a Sunni Arab dominated region where several areas are controlled by insurgents.

In Samarra, a Sunni-dominated town, 66 suspected insurgents were arrested and a curfew was imposed, police said.