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Last Updated: Tuesday, 29 March, 2005, 14:21 GMT 15:21 UK
Political chaos stokes Iraqi fears
By Roger Hardy
BBC Middle East analyst

Iraqis weep by bloodied car of police officer shot dead in southern Iraqi city of Najaf
Iraqis are desperate for a political solution to the violence
The members of Iraq's newly elected National Assembly have gathered in the capital Baghdad - but deadlock persists over the formation of a new government.

The long delay in forming a new government has dismayed many Iraqis who defied the violence to vote on 30 January.

Many are waiting impatiently for a new leadership to emerge which will tackle the country's urgent problems.

First and foremost is ending the violence which has plagued the country since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and his government nearly two years ago.

But what is blocking progress is more than a classic power struggle.

At stake is the character of the new Iraq, not just the dividing up of the top jobs.

Kurdish hopes

The two groups which emerged as the winners in the elections - the Kurds and the Shia - have been at odds over fundamental issues.

Kurdish families demonstrate for better representation in Kirkuk, Iraq
Kurds want substantial autonomy in any new Iraqi government
The Shia want a united Iraq run from the centre in Baghdad, in which Islamic values will be accorded high priority.

The Kurds of the north have a more secular outlook and want substantial autonomy.

Indeed, as their critics would argue, they want statehood in all but name.

In particular, they lay claim to the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, which currently lies outside the area they control.

Enter the Sunnis

A few days ago, it looked as if Kurdish and Shia leaders had just about ironed out their differences and it was expected this would pave the way for the much-delayed formation of a government.

A country which once took pride in championing Arab nationalism now finds itself increasingly fragmented
But now the main losers in the elections - the Sunnis - have entered the fray, complicating an already complex game of bargaining.

The Sunnis largely boycotted the elections, a decision some of them now think was a big mistake.

A committee of five Sunnis has now joined the fraught negotiations over forming a government.

Having traditionally been the country's ruling elite, the Sunnis feel bitter about being marginalised.

But they are not united and this is making it difficult for them to present a credible front in the ongoing negotiations.

Moreover, psychologically they are in no mood to accept what they regard as crumbs from the victors.

They want a real share of power, not just token representation.

Damaging trend

The long period of haggling is not just an embarrassment for those who hailed the elections as a turning point.

It also highlights with stark clarity the communal character of the new Iraqi politics.

A country which once took pride in championing Arab nationalism now finds itself increasingly fragmented.

Politicians still pay lip service to the idea of a strong and united Iraq with equal rights for all.

But, in reality, what counts now in Iraqi politics is whether you are Arab or Kurd, Sunni or Shia.

Many Iraqis see this as a damaging trend and feel they are being forced to give their allegiance to their ethnic or religious community rather than to the nation as a whole.

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