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Iraqi assembly to meet in effort to form government

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Iraq's national assembly is set to hold its second meeting Tuesday amid low expectations that the nation's ethnic groups can settle their differences in time to form a government quickly.

By Monday night, the main Kurdish and Shiite Muslim political tickets had agreed on appointees to most Cabinet positions but were unable to resolve disagreements over who would control the nation's crucial oil ministry. The assembly's scheduled Saturday meeting was postponed largely because of disputes about the distribution of ministry positions.

Kurd and Shiite politicians, who together in the assembly control the two-thirds vote needed to form a government, say they'll name the speaker of the assembly and his deputies on Tuesday, while continuing to negotiate other matters. They may also attempt to swear in the newly named president and his deputies.

But even the most basic step of appointing the assembly speaker appeared to hit a snag Monday when the nation's current president, Ghazi al-Yawer—who'll lose his position in the new government—publicly refused to accept the speaker's slot, which had been offered to him, reportedly because as a Sunni he felt disenfranchised from a process that has largely shut out the minority Sunni population.

Most Sunnis skipped the vote in the Jan. 30 national elections because they were either afraid of insurgent violence or they rejected the process as being orchestrated by the Americans.

The biggest winner in the election was a Shiite political ticket, the United Iraqi Alliance, formed under the guidance of the nation's top Shiite religious leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, and stacked with politicians and clergy with strong ties to theocratic Iran.

The low Sunni turnout put the Kurds in a powerful position, as the alliance needs their 75 seats in the 275-member assembly to get the two-thirds vote.

The prime minister slot is set to go to Shiite politician Ibrahim al-Jaafari and the presidency to Kurdish politician Jalal Talabani.

The Kurds, who make up some 20 percent of Iraq's population, seem intent on reaping as much as they can from their key role before those two men take office.

After the president and two deputies are seated, they are to pick a prime minister, according to Iraq's transitional law. The prime minister, Jaafari, would then nominate a Cabinet of ministers. After that point, Kurds would lose leverage as the prime minister and his Cabinet take over key decision-making.

Aside from the presidency, the Kurds will get the foreign minister's job, making them highly visible to the international community and giving them a platform to make future demands.

Accounts conflict over who'll get the interior and defense ministries, which oversee the nation's police and army. At first, the Shiites looked set to get the interior ministry and give the defense ministry post to a Sunni, despite misgivings about Sunni persecution of Shiites in the past. But Monday evening, Shiites appeared ready to take both ministries and allow the finance ministry to go to a Sunni.

It's oil, though, that appears to spark the most contention in a nation that has the world's second-largest reserves. The Kurds have asked for control of the oil-rich area around Kirkuk in the north, an issue they agreed to delay until a local referendum could be held in Kirkuk.

According to some reports, the Kurds at one point asked for a guarantee of 25 percent of Iraq's oil revenues.

"The Kurds call for 25 percent of oil revenues to go to Kurdistan, but to achieve justice and balance, the ministry must be supervised by" the Shiite political ticket, said Saad Jawad, a Shiite official.

Fouad Masoum, with the Kurdish ticket, denied Monday that the demand had been made.

"We were trying to clarify that when there will be a budget for the coming government, Kurdistan should have its share just like the other Iraqi provinces," he said. "This matter was misunderstood."

Kamal al Deen, another Kurd official, said Kurdish negotiators have suggested that the oil ministry post be given to a Sunni. Doing so would be a boost to the Sunni community, he said. It also would keep a crucial post out of Shiite control.

"We couldn't reach an agreement," he said.


(Special correspondent Yasser al Salihee contributed to this report.)


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.