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Last Updated: Tuesday, 15 March, 2005, 23:43 GMT
Iraq's long road to government
Jim Muir
By Jim Muir
BBC News, Baghdad

The inaugural session of the newly-elected Iraqi parliament comes more than six weeks after the country's first general elections since the downfall of Saddam Hussein.

The delay has disappointed many voters who risked their lives to go to the polls in defiance of insurgent threats.

An Iraqi woman walks in front of election posters (file photo)
After decades of dictatorship, coalition politics is a novelty in Iraq

The convening of parliament was held up because the factions emerging from the election were unable to form a coalition government swiftly.

The Shia-dominated United Iraqi Coalition won just over half of the 275 seats.

But to form a government it needs the support of two-thirds of the assembly.

So it plunged into complex and intensive negotiations with the Kurdish bloc, which came second with 77 seats, easily enough to endorse a new government.

Learning curve

But weeks of wrangling failed to produce a result in time for the parliamentary session.

Coalition politics is a novelty in a country ruled by a tight dictatorship for decades.

Iraq's Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari (file photo)
We waited for nearly 30 years to be done with the tyranny of Saddam Hussein.
I think the Iraqi people could be patient with us for a few more days to form the new government.

Hoshyar Zebari
Interim Iraqi Foreign Minister

The learning curve has been steep.

Politicians across the board, aware of rising public impatience, agreed to hold the inaugural meeting in order to give at least a semblance of progress.

But the meeting will be largely a formality. The assembly is unable even to elect its own speaker, because that is one of the top jobs still under discussion as part of the wider power-sharing package.

"It has taken so long because this is a new experience for Iraqi politics," Hoshyar Zebari, interim Iraqi Foreign Minister and a key negotiator for the Kurds, told the BBC News website.

"We waited for nearly 30 years to be done with the tyranny of Saddam Hussein. I think the Iraqi people could be patient with us for a few more days to form the new government."

The would-be coalition builders are now hoping to announce a government by the end of March at the latest.

Ink on paper?

By the time the newly-elected deputies were preparing to assemble at the convention centre in the heavily-guarded Green Zone, Shia and Kurdish leaders said they were close to agreement on a memorandum of understanding outlining the political platform of the government.

The agreement is based on the Transitional Administrative Law (TAL), the interim constitution adopted in 2004.

But the Kurds, wary of past agreements which have ended up as no more than ink on paper, wanted binding practical commitments to implementing their key concerns.

These included the adoption of a federal system that would allow them to develop the de facto autonomy they have enjoyed since 1991.

One contentious element of that was the role of the Kurdish peshmerga forces.

The Kurds see them as the ultimate guarantors of their survival and security, and want to keep them on as internal security forces, rather than merged into the national army.

Commitments

Another was the future of the city and oil-rich province of Kirkuk.

By changing its boundaries, expelling thousands of Kurds and Turkmen, and settling Arabs from the south, Saddam Hussein changed its demography to ensure an Arab majority.

An Iraqi woman and child walk past the remains of a car bomb in Baghdad, Iraq
Bombings are still a daily occurrence in Baghdad

The Kurds want it attached to the three provinces which are recognised by Baghdad as Iraqi Kurdistan.

The TAL specifies an agreed process to reverse the consequences of Saddam Hussein's polices and hold a referendum to determine the wishes of the province's people.

In the negotiations, the Kurds demanded written commitments and timetables for action.

Suspicious of Shia intentions - the Shia coalition is dominated by Islamic religious factions, some of them close to Iran - the Kurds also wanted a written agreement that if the government departed from stated policies, it would give up office within a set period after a Kurdish withdrawal.

On the eve of the parliamentary session, negotiators said they were close to finalising the coalition document.

But a good deal more work remained to be done to fit together a government.

Both parties wanted to include significant representatives of the Sunni community - which is heavily under-represented in the assembly, as voters were either intimidated or chose not to attend the polls, and many of their candidates withdrew.

Although the new administration would base its support on a Shia-Kurdish parliamentary coalition, the Kurds in particular were keen to make the government one of National Unity, even drawing in the Iraqi List faction headed by interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, which came second with 40 seats.

That would involve fresh complications, as Mr Allawi's secular group has strong feelings about the religious and Iranian influences it believes are behind the Shia alliance, and about the way the process of dealing with former supporters of the Baathist regime is handled.

Hope

"I don't think the issue is now one of words on paper, it's a question of trust," said one well-placed political source.

"If it comes to a divorce, they want someone to help save face.

"The Kurds are worried about the political and philosophical divide with the Shia, so if Allawi's group were involved, it would make it easier for them to face the consequences of a collapse."

Democracy in Iraq was always going to be complicated and messy.

Although the country is in ruins after 30 years of upheavals culminating in the US-led invasion, hopes of a better eventual future are still high.

"Iraq is liberated. There is hope," said politician Ahmad Chalabi, a leader of the Shia alliance and one of its new MPs.

"There have been elections, and the people of Iraq have shown their courage and determination to move forward.

"I believe that they will achieve the results. They will establish sovereignty of the country, they will get security, they will fight corruption, and they will get the country moving."




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