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Iraqi parliament deadlocks over selection of speaker

Iraqi parliament deadlocks over selection of speaker

BAGHDAD, Iraq — Iraq's fledgling parliament failed Tuesday to agree on who would be its speaker, with the interim prime minister and president storming out of the chaotic session that exposed deep divides among the National Assembly's Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish members.

The short session — mostly held behind closed doors after leaders kicked out reporters and cut off a live television feed — adjourned until this weekend.

Hussein al-Sadr, a Shiite cleric and member of interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi's coalition, said the parliament speaker likely would be chosen Sunday, giving Sunni Arab lawmakers time to come up with a candidate.

"We saw that things were confused today, so we gave them a last chance," al-Sadr said. "We expect the Sunni Arab brothers to nominate their candidate. Otherwise, we will vote on a candidate on Sunday."

Nearly two months after Iraq's historic Jan. 30 elections, negotiations to form a new government have stalled over Cabinet posts and how to include the fragile nation's Sunni minority — dominant under former dictator Saddam Hussein and believed to make up the core of the ongoing insurgency.

In Washington, President Bush acknowledged that Iraqis are divided over the future of their country but said the differences "will be resolved through debate and persuasion instead of force and intimidation."

"The free people of Iraq are now doing what Saddam Hussein never could: making Iraq a positive example for the entire Middle East," Bush said Tuesday, speaking to an audience of Iraqi law students, members of the religious community and others.

The bickering Tuesday exposed tensions in the newly formed parliament, with Allawi storming out of the session, followed by interim President Ghazi al-Yawer, a Sunni Arab who turned down the speaker's job.

Shiite, Kurdish and Sunni representatives were trying to come up with a Sunni Arab candidate that legislators promised would be announced during Tuesday's session.

Once it began after a three-hour delay, however, lawmakers immediately began arguing over whether to delay their decision, and the leader of the session decided to kick reporters and cameras out and close the meeting to the public.

"We demand to know the details of what's happening behind the scenes!" one woman shouted before the live television feed of the gathering went blank.

Sunni Arab lawmaker Meshaan al-Jubouri called for a decision, saying: "There are voices calling for electing the speaker today. This cannot be."

"This is ridiculous," he said as he left the meeting hall.

Negotiators were lobbying al-Yawer to take the speaker's job.

"We have apologized for practical reasons," said al-Yawer, who is seeking one of the country's two vice presidential spots. "With the small number of Sunni Arabs in the assembly, this post won't put us in a position to strike a balance."

Critics of the process say the Sunni Arab candidates being discussed for government posts have no influence on the insurgency, and their participation is unlikely to affect it.

Some explosions were heard in Baghdad on Tuesday, where officials had warned residents to prepare for stepped up insurgent attacks. It was unclear if they caused any damage. During the first National Assembly meeting, on March 16, militants lobbed mortar rounds at the heavily fortified Green Zone in the city's center, where lawmakers held their meeting.

Violence also continued in the rest of the country, with a car bombing in the northern city of Kirkuk that killed one person and injured more than a dozen others, police said.

Three Romanian journalists were kidnapped Monday near their hotel, their employers said. They were identified as reporter Marie Jeanne Ion, 32, and cameraman Sorin Dumitru Miscoci, 30, of Bucharest-based television station Prima TV, and Romania Libera newspaper reporter Ovidiu Ohanesian, 37.

The three disappeared shortly after an interview with Allawi, said Petre Mihai Bacanu, managing editor of Romania Libera.

Romanian President Traian Basescu made a surprise visit Sunday to Iraq, where the country has 800 troops.

French authorities, meanwhile, have received "reassuring information" about a French journalist and her guide who are being held hostage, Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin told lawmakers in Paris.

"We now have contacts that appear to have stabilized, which allows us to have some hope," Raffarin said.

Florence Aubenas, of the daily newspaper Liberation, and her Iraqi guide, Hussein Hanoun, were kidnapped Jan. 5. The first public sign of life came March 1 with the release of a video showing a pale Aubenas pleading for help.

The Shiite-led United Iraqi Alliance and the Kurdish coalition, which finished first and second in the landmark elections, have reached out to the Sunnis and to members of Allawi's coalition, hoping to form an inclusive national unity government.

But haggling over the level of participation of the Sunnis, as well as jockeying for Cabinet posts and efforts to resolve differences between the various groups, have left Iraq without a government almost two months after the 275-member National Assembly was elected. Lawmakers have until mid-August to draft a permanent constitution.

The assembly will name a president and two deputies, who in turn will nominate a prime minister. The presidency is expected to go to Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani and the prime minister's post to Shiite politician Ibrahim al-Jaafari — but the exact timeline is unclear.

Some Iraqis have expressed frustration with the drawn-out talks, which critics argued reflected the nature of sectarian politics in the new Iraq. Many Sunnis boycotted the election or stayed away out of fear of attacks. But some have had a change of heart after the vote was touted as a success.

Naseer al-Ani of the Iraqi Islamic Party, a main Sunni group, said the limited options facing the Sunnis — who only have a few members in the assembly — contributed to the delay.

Al-Ani's party dealt a blow to the election process when it withdrew from the race, but it is now participating in talks and wants to help draft the constitution.

Issues such as how many and which ministries should go to the Sunni Arabs, as well as the names of candidates for these posts and for vice presidents, remained unresolved. Some Sunni legislators want the same number of Cabinet posts as the Kurds.

Together, the alliance and the Kurds have 215 seats in parliament — enough to make key decisions. But their members say it would be shortsighted to go it alone, adding they are against marginalizing any of the country's groups.

Associated Press reporter Sinan Salaheddin contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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