Effort to Form Iraqi Government Collapses
Two Months After Elections, Ethinic Groups Fail to Agree on Coalition

By Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, March 29, 2005; 1:22 PM

BAGHDAD, March 29 -- Iraq's attempt to fill the first posts in a national-unity government erupted in shouting and factional strife Tuesday, as what politicians described as last-minute power plays overran a Shiite- and Kurd-led effort to form a coalition with Sunnis.

A National Assembly session meant to elect the essential post of assembly speaker opened with Islamic prayers followed by a veiled lawmaker rising to her feet in black robes to denounce "these behind-the-scenes" talks on a new government.

A quick series of complaints followed with rank-and-file lawmakers expressing frustration at the more than two months of haggling over forming a government following the Jan. 30 national elections.

" 'Why don't you give us the details of what is going on in this democratic process?" said the robed lawmaker, whose identity was not discernible from a television feed that was journalists' only access to the session.

"What shall we tell those who sacrificed their lives in the 30th of January?" lawmaker Hussein Sadr, whose own bloc has been linked to this week's latest delay, asked the assembly.

"Speed up!" Sadr said.

Assembly leaders abruptly ordered news cameras out of the hall after 22 minutes.

For the Iraqi public, television broadcasts of what was only the second session of their new parliament snapped to black, then went to a Saddam Hussein-era-style tape of a popular singer warbling an Iraqi national anthem.

At issue is the post of assembly speaker. Shiites and Kurds say they are determined to fill the spot and several others with Sunnis in hopes of defusing a two-year, Sunni-led insurgency.

Shiite Muslims, who form a majority in Iraq, and Kurds won the most seats in the new 270-person assembly, which is supposed to elect a government to succeed an interim one seated after the March 2003 U.S. invasion. Sunni Muslim clerics, who have seen their minority's fall from dominance in Iraq, told Sunnis to boycott the Jan. 30 vote.

Picking a speaker is a necessary first step before the assembly can elect new Iraqi leaders and a Cabinet, although many deals on those posts also remain shaky.

Interim President Ghazi Yawar abruptly withdrew as the consensus Sunni candidate for the speaker post Monday.

The opening of Tuesday's session in a Saddam-era convention hall was put on hold for 1 1/2 hours while Iraqi leaders gathered in a side room pressed Yawar to change his mind.

The effort failed. Lawmakers also were unable to settle on a willing replacement among the 17 Sunnis in parliament.

Finally, officials said, they gave Sunnis 48 hours after Tuesday's session to come forward with a candidate.

Jalaledin Saghir, a hard-line Shiite cleric and politician, said the Shiite-Kurd coalition had warned it would appoint a Sunni speaker if the Sunnis themselves failed to do so.

Several other lawmakers from various blocs said they knew of no such ultimatum, however.

Yawar and interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, a secular politician who controls a few dozen seats in parliament, are both seeking deals out of the impasse that would increase their political influence and counter the Shiites' dominance of the incoming government, lawmakers said.