New Iraqi parliament to convene for first time next week; choosing president is first task

By Lara Jakes, AP
Tuesday, June 8, 2010

New Iraqi parliament to convene next week

BAGHDAD — Iraq’s newly elected lawmakers will convene for the first time next week, though the political power struggle over who will lead the next government appeared far from resolution.

The legislature’s first task will be to choose a president and parliament speaker. But after an inconclusive election, rival factions are struggling to put together a package deal to determine the nation’s new leaders — including a prime minister and top Cabinet officials — for lawmakers to approve as soon as parliament convenes.

One of those vying to grab the premiership, Ayad Allawi, said it was certain to be a tough battle that would ensure more delays. That’s a dangerous scenario that could open the door to more violence by extremist groups seeking to exploit the political uncertainty and, in turn, sink confidence in Iraq’s leaders.

“It will not be over in day or two,” said Allawi, a former prime minister and Shiite leader of the secular but Sunni-dominated Iraqiya political alliance, which won 91 seats in the March 7 parliamentary election — two more than its closest challenger.

In a swipe at a super-Shiite coalition that is angling to control the parliament through postelection maneuvering, Allawi darkly said: “The battle will be hard between powers who believe in democracy and powers who believe in oppression.”

If Allawi’s Sunni supporters feel robbed, that too could pull Iraq back into sectarian bloodshed. Much of the violence after the 2003 U.S. invasion was fueled by feelings of disenfranchisement by Sunnis who lost positions of power with the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s regime.

President Jalal Talabani issued a highly anticipated order Tuesday calling parliament to session June 14. Among lawmakers’ first duties will be to elect a new speaker and president who, in turn, will decide which of Iraq’s rival political factions will pick a prime minister and Cabinet ministers.

Complicating matters, Iraq’s divided power brokers must map out that picture in its entirety before any of those politicians can assume their duties — a process that could still take weeks, or even months.

None of Iraq’s major political coalitions captured an outright majority in the election, leaving the country without a clear winner.

The lack of clear leadership in the already fragile democracy has fostered fears that extremist groups may incite violence as tens of thousands of U.S. military forces prepare to head home.

After Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s State of Law coalition won 89 seats — coming in second place behind Iraqiya — he sought to hold on to his job by joining forces with a religiously devout Shiite alliance. That super-Shiite coalition, as U.S. officials have dubbed it, has tentatively coalesced its combined 159 seats in hopes of attracting enough support to control parliament and, in turn, the future government.

That’s still four seats shy of an outright majority in the 325-seat parliament.

Once a new president is elected, he or she will task the legislature’s largest political bloc with forming the new government. But the definition of the largest bloc is hotly debated, and likely will be the next battle between Iraqiya and al-Maliki.

Iraqiya leaders have claimed they should have the first crack at forming the government because they won the most seats on balloting day. But a March court opinion opened the door to the possibility that the largest bloc could be one created after the election through negotiations — meaning that if the super-Shiite coalition holds together, it could have the right to form the government.

Allawi, meeting Tuesday with Iraqiya lawmakers, called on parliament to make what he called “correct decisions” in creating the new government.

“Democracy says that the winner — even by one seat — should form the government,” he said.

Associated Press Writers Qassim Abdul-Zahra and Sinan Salaheddin contributed to this report.

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