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Iraqi leaders try again to convene parliament

Under U.S. pressure, Iraqi leaders decided Wednesday to convene parliament in an attempt to jump-start the formation of a new unity government, stalled for months over the decision of a prime minister.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Under U.S. pressure, Iraqi leaders decided Wednesday to convene parliament in a bid to jump-start the formation of a new unity government, stalled for months over the choice of a prime minister.

But Shiite officials raised doubts whether the session — already postponed once this week — would take place Thursday as planned. They said the seven-faction Shiite alliance would meet Thursday morning and decide whether to attend the afternoon session.

The Bush administration is anxious to get a broad-based government seated, hoping it will help undermine support for the insurgency as well as calm sectarian strife that has bloodied Iraq in recent months.

At least 17 people were killed Wednesday, police said, and the bodies of 10 other people were found in Baghdad and Kut — apparently the victims of reprisal killings by Shiite and Sunni extremists.

Meanwhile, local police and neighbors of two Baghdad schools where gunmen had reportedly beheaded teachers in front of their students Wednesday said the slayings never happened, despite an official statement to the contrary.

News crews responded to a statement by the Ministry of Interior, saying that two teachers were “slaughtered” at Amna and Shaheed Hamdi primary schools in Shaab district in Baghdad.

There, neighbors and local police officials denied any such act occurred. There were also no signs of distressed children at the schools. It was not clear why the Ministry of State for National Security issued a statement claiming these acts occurred.

Parliament session delayed
Parliament had been set to convene Monday, but the session was delayed to allow Shiite leaders time to resolve the deadlock over their nomination of Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari for a second term. Sunni and Kurdish parties oppose al-Jaafari, blaming him for the surge in sectarian violence.

But al-Jaafari insisted Wednesday that he still enjoyed the support of the Shiite alliance, the dominant bloc in parliament, and would not step aside.

“As a matter of principle, I think the idea of making a concession is, for me at least, out of the question,” he said at a nationally televised news conference.

However, Iraqi leaders are under enormous pressure from the United States and Britain to form a national unity government to stem the country’s slide toward chaos and enable Washington and London to show political progress to electorates becoming more skeptical of Iraq policy.

Responding to U.S. pressure
Shiite officials said U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad insisted parliament convene this week in hopes of generating political momentum, Iraqi politicians said. After a series of meetings, acting speaker Adnan Pachachi announced the session for 4 p.m. Thursday.

“The Americans are demanding with great insistence that the parliament be convened as soon as possible. There is strong pressure from Zalmay,” Kurdish lawmaker Mahmoud Othman said.

Lawmakers, who have met briefly only once since the Dec. 15 election, were not expected to decide on al-Jaafari but were expected to choose a new parliament speaker and fill other posts.

The Sunnis decided late Wednesday to support Adnan al-Dulaimi for speaker, a post held by a Sunni Arab in the last parliament. Kurds and Shiites were expected to field their own candidates — if the session did take place.

A complete parliament needed
“We hope to God that parliament meets tomorrow,” Othman told The Associated Press. “Attendance must be complete” and without the Shiites “what will we do? Sit, drink tea and go?”

The Shiites control 130 of the 275 seats and get first crack at the premiership as the biggest bloc in parliament. But they do not have enough seats to govern without Sunni and Kurdish allies, who refuse to join a new government led by al-Jaafari.

But the Shiites can block Sunni and Kurdish candidates for other posts requiring parliamentary approval, including the national president, two vice presidents, parliament speaker and the two deputy speakers.

Al-Jaafari won the nomination by a single vote in balloting among Shiite lawmakers. Shiite leaders, including many who opposed al-Jaafari in the February vote, are reluctant to force him out for fear of shattering Shiite political unity.

The prime minister won the nomination because of the support of radical, anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose growing strength has alarmed Sunnis, Kurds and many mainstream Shiite figures.

Bush: Failure 'not an option'
On Wednesday, President Bush called on the Iraqis to “step up and form a unity government so that those who went to the polls to vote recognize that a government will be in place to respond to their needs.”

“We understand full well that the political process in Iraq must occur soon,” Bush told reporters. “I don’t expect everybody to agree with my decision to go into Iraq. But I do want the people to understand, the American people to understand, that failure in Iraq is not an option.”

Sectarian tensions have been running high since the Feb. 22 bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra and the reprisal attacks against Sunni mosques and clerics that followed. Two days of clashes erupted Monday in a Sunni district of Baghdad over rumors that Shiite militias were coming.

At least 13 people were killed in the Azamiyah fighting, but the district was calm Wednesday as Iraqi soldiers patrolled the streets.