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Iraqi Parliament Re-Convenes Tuesday to Elect Senior Leaders


In Iraq, the 270 members of the recently elected parliament are gathering Tuesday to choose senior government leaders and get down to the business of running the country, two years after the fall of Saddam Hussein. Leaders want to form a government of national unity.

Iraq's Shi'ite Muslims, who won more than half the seats in January's elections, and the Kurds, who won more than one-fourth of the seats, control enough votes to form the new Iraqi government. But they want to include as many groups as possible in the new administration.

As a result, the two groups have held lengthy negotiations with other parties over the past several weeks.

A negotiator for the Shi'ite group, former oil minister Ibrahim Bahr al-Ulum, says they do not want any Iraqi to feel excluded from the new government.

"We tried to achieve the unity government… to include more groups in the government, so the government will be representative of the Iraqi society," he said.

A negotiator for the Kurdish group, Fouad Masum, agrees, saying broader representation in the government will promote stability. He says the Shi'ite and Kurdish groups have more than enough votes to achieve the two-thirds majority needed to form the government. But they want broader participation.

The two groups have been courting the Sunni Arabs who, despite their sizable population, won only 17 seats in parliament because of an election boycott.

A negotiator for the Sunni group that participated in the vote, Mishan al-Juburi, says Sunni support will be needed to pass the new constitution, which is to be drafted by parliament and put to a popular referendum in August.

Mr. Mishan notes that, by law, the new constitution will be defeated, if more than three provinces reject it. He says that Sunnis control more than three provinces, and, as a result, if they do not support the new charter, it will fail.

Some of the Sunni groups that boycotted the elections have also been consulted. They appointed a commission to meet with the elected leaders on the new government.

A member of this group, Baghdad University Professor Naebil Younis, says that, even though many Sunni Arabs did not vote in January's elections, they still should have a say in the political process.

"We think we have the right to participate in the political life and the political process after that election," he said. "And one of these [rights] is the forming of the government and the forming of the constitution."

He does not believe his group will join the government. But it will continue to consult with the elected groups, and hopes to increase its power in parliament in the next elections later this year.

The Iraqi general public has expressed frustration over the delays in forming a new government, and wants it to get to work solving everyday problems that persist two years after the war.

Shi'ite representative Bahr al-Ulum says most political leaders agree on the most pressing priorities.

"We have [a] commitment to our people, and part of it is a strong government to bring security to Iraq and to solve many problems, like corruption," he said.

He says the government also needs to reduce unemployment, which is running at about 50 percent, and to improve services like electrical power, clean water and better sanitation.

A major challenge facing the new government is drafting the new constitution. Negotiators say most parties have agreed on the broad outlines of the charter.

One of the issues is whether Iraq should have a strong central government, as before, or adopt a federal system to accommodate various ethnic groups, in particular the Kurds, who fought for an independent state.

Kurdish negotiator Mr. Masum says Kurdish leaders acknowledge their people would like independence, but recognize that the political realities make this goal unrealistic, and, as a result, his group will remain part of Iraq.

Mr. Masum says the proof is that the Kurds are working within the political process and have proposed candidates for senior government positions.

Concerning the debate over whether Iraq should become an Islamic state, most political groups appear to agree that, although Islam should be recognized as an integral part of the nation, it should not have a predominant role in government, as it does in some Muslim nations.

However, they acknowledge that many disagreements remain. And as a result, they say drafting the new constitution and its supporting laws may be a lengthy process.

Nevertheless, Shi'ite representative Mr. Bahr al-Ulum says he is optimistic, because the reign of terror under the Saddam Hussein regime is no more.

"The republic of fear has been broken by 30th of January [elections]," he said.

He says the proof is that ordinary Iraqi citizens increasingly are cooperating with security forces to combat violence and crime that afflict society. And he says, although the new government faces tremendous challenges in restoring order and essential services, it is more likely to succeed, if it includes all Iraqis, even those who initially rejected it.

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