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2nd meeting of Iraqi assembly collapses amid infighting

BAGHDAD, Iraq—The second meeting of the Iraqi national assembly slipped into shouts and allegations Tuesday just before reporters were removed, the prime minister walked out and the meeting ended abruptly.

At the root of the tension was an ongoing feud between Sunni Muslim politicians and the Shiite Muslim group that swept elections. President Ghazi al-Yawer, a Sunni, refused an offer from Shiite and Kurdish political leaders to be the speaker of the assembly, saying Sunnis were being marginalized in the political process.

Two months after national elections on Jan. 30, the assembly finished the day without performing its first order of business—appointing a speaker.

"I couldn't say that I am happy with the state of the negotiations because we haven't been involved very deeply in those negotiations that have been going on only between the two groups,'' the Shiites and Kurds, said Hashim al Hassani, a Sunni from al-Yawer's political list. They're telling Sunnis "this is what is left for you, and take it or leave it. It is not acceptable."

Many Sunnis suspect that the Shiite ticket, the United Iraqi Alliance, plans to push Iraq toward an Islamic theocracy. The alliance was formed with the guidance of Iranian-born Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, a Shiite, and its top leaders have deep ties to hard-line, theocratic Iran.

In Washington, President Bush downplayed the problems in Iraq while sending a clear message about his expectations for the new government.

"We expect a new government will be chosen soon. ... We're confident that this new government will be inclusive, will respect human rights and will uphold fundamental freedoms for all Iraqis," he told Iraqi visitors in the White House Rose Garden.

"Iraqis are taking big steps on a long journey of freedom," he said. "The free people of Iraq are now doing what Saddam Hussein never could—making Iraq a positive example for the entire Middle East."

Because many Sunnis didn't vote in the elections, the Shiite alliance gained 140 seats in the 275-person assembly, and the Kurds received 75, giving the two groups the two-thirds vote necessary to form the new government.

Although the ethnicities of assembly members aren't published, Sunni Arabs are estimated to number about 17.

The Shiites deny that they aspire to base the constitution on Shiite Islam. Complicating the situation further is a series of demands by the Kurds, who are seeking to leverage their position into coveted ministerial slots and more oil revenues.

The bickering and continued isolation of the Sunnis will lead to more widespread violence, warned Nabil Mohammed, a political science professor and analyst at Baghdad University.

"It is hard to build a new country and a government on the basis of the ethnic and nationality differences," he said. "Doing so is going to divide the country."

Abdul Jabar Ahmed, another analyst at Baghdad University, agreed.

"When ordinary Iraqis see the elite fighting on TV, it makes them want to follow their leaders' example—to fight, to go to civil war," he said.

Out of mounting concerns about a Sunni backlash and increasing violence between Sunnis and Shiites, the alliance and Kurds had wanted a Sunni to take the assembly's visible speaker spot. But al-Yawer's refusal was firm, and he demanded that he be given at least a vice president's slot.

A Western diplomat, who insisted on anonymity, said getting a Sunni into a high-profile position was key to fighting the Sunni-led insurgency.

"The obvious reason they're paying attention to this is that they're hoping that Sunni politicians can entice the Sunni armed insurgency to lay down their weapons and join a genuine political process," the diplomat said. Such a politician would travel to insurgent hotbeds such as Ramadi and Mosul to argue that to continue the insurgency is to hurt Iraq.

The assembly meeting, held in a compound guarded by American soldiers, tanks and helicopters, began about three hours late because of continued bargaining.

Dhari al Fayadh, the moderator, opened the meeting by asking God for guidance, then quickly informed the assembly that there was no speaker candidate.

Al Fayadh opened the floor for comment, and the proceeding devolved into loud arguments.

"The people must be informed about what is happening behind the scenes," shouted Shatha al Musawi, a member of the Shiite alliance. "All the details of the discussions about the obstacles that hinder the democratic process and stop the political process must be made public. If you do not do that, it means that you are concealing the enemies of Iraq."

A representative from the southern town of Basra complained that British troops had raided his home and called for the release of those detained.

As the arguing hit a crescendo, al Fayadh ordered the removal of a TV camera crew from Al-Iraqiyah, a news network that was filming the event live, and Western reporters.

Several assembly members protested, saying that the proceedings should be open to the public.

"If the media will allow me, I have something to say to the members," al Fayadh said. "I swear that no one told me" to make the cameras leave.

Furthering his argument, al Fayadh added, "I am older than you."

A moment later, images on TV screens across the nation switched to a symphony playing the Iraqi national anthem, followed by a montage of interviews extolling the virtues of Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite who'll have to step down after a new prime minister is formally named.

Arguing could be heard from outside the conference room where the assembly was meeting. Allawi left minutes later, then al-Yawer. The assembly adjourned.

Iraqi officials said they hoped to reconvene on Sunday.

After hearing about the day's political events, Abbas Fadhel, a Shiite gas station owner in central Baghdad, said he worried about the nation's future.

"Iraq won't be quiet until there is a civil war," he said. "These people won't ever be able to make Iraq settle down; they couldn't even have a normal meeting."

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(Salihee is a special correspondent. Special correspondent Huda Ahmed contributed to this report.)

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

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