Iraqis elect Sunni Muslim as parliament speaker

President, prime minister, other posts still open

April 04, 2005|By Alissa J. Rubin | Alissa J. Rubin,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BAGHDAD, Iraq - Iraqi lawmakers broke a logjam that for weeks had blocked the formation of the new government, voting overwhelmingly yesterday 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 the first of three required to set up the government but appeared to signal that the intense behind-the-scenes wrangling since the Jan. 30 elections had begun to yield results.

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 Iraq war's official end. 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 the deputy prime minister with the 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 a speaker was cheered by U.S. officials, who have been pressing Iraqi factions to settle their differences and form a new government.

There was no repeat of the acrimonious scene at a meeting last week when assembly members were unable to decide on a speaker. At that gathering, participants began to shout at one another and the session's leaders abruptly ordered television cameras off and the news media out.

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

Hajim al-Hassani, 50, a Sunni and an ethnic Turkman, was elected speaker. Hussain al-Shahristani, a Shiite, and Aref Taifour, a member of the Kurdish Democratic Party, were named deputy speakers.

With the choice of al-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 expected choice of Jalal Talabani, a leader of the Kurdish alliance, as president. Similarly, there is wide agreement that Ibrahim al-Jaafari - a Shiite leader of the United Iraqi Alliance, which holds a majority of seats in the assembly - will be chosen prime minister.

The main obstacle now to forming the government is the distribution of ministries. There has been considerable inflation in the number of ministries, and more could be added to create enough posts to satisfy demand from different groups for a place at the table.

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

Also in dispute is the allocation of the top five ministries, particularly the defense and oil ministries.

Shiites and Kurds, whose alliance makes up the second-largest bloc in the assembly, 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 Saddam Hussein.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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