BAGHDAD, Iraq – Lawmakers broke days of rancorous stalemate Sunday and reached out to Iraq’s Sunni Muslim minority for their Parliament speaker, cutting through ethnic and sectarian barriers that have held up selection of a new government for more than two months since the country’s first free elections in 50 years.
However, deputies still face difficult choices for Cabinet posts and failed again to name a president – broadly expected to be Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani. That choice and those of two vice presidents were put off until a Wednesday session that could mark a major milestone as Iraq tries to build a democratic government and civil society.
Once the president and his deputies are selected, they have 14 days to choose a prime minister, the most powerful position in Iraq’s envisioned government hierarchy. That job was widely believed reserved for Ibrahim al-Jaafari, of the Shiite Muslim majority.
Pressure is building on parliamentarians, with some growing frustrated with the slow pace of forming a government, because they have an Aug. 15 deadline to write a permanent constitution – a task that cannot be undertaken until a government is in place.
Sunday’s selection as speaker – Industry Minister Hajim al-Hassani, one of only 17 Sunni Arabs in Parliament – could signal progress in the political tussle over selecting politicians for key Cabinet posts, a process that has been snarled by disagreement over how to reach out to the Sunnis.
They are believed to make up the backbone of the Iraqi insurgency, were dominant under ousted dictator Saddam Hussein and largely boycotted the Jan. 30 elections or stayed home for fear of being attacked at the polls.
The choice of al-Hassani, however, was not well received in all quarters.
Osama Abdulfatah, a 30-year-old architect and a Sunni, said the new speaker’s support last year of the U.S. assault on the militant stronghold of Fallujah showed he “does not have beliefs, and will never do anything against his benefit.”
Al-Hassani refused to quit as industry minister even though his Iraqi Islamic Party pulled out of the interim government over the issue.
“How could we just trust such a traitor?” Abdulfatah asked.
Former nuclear scientist Hussain al-Shahristani, a Shiite, and Kurdish official Aref Taifour were chosen deputy speakers.
The speaker’s job, not the most sought-after position in the still-forming Iraqi hierarchy, produced more than a week of sometimes angry haggling. A Tuesday session ended in shouting and finger-pointing with reporters hustled out of the chamber to keep them from witnessing more of the angry exchanges as deputies tried to agree on candidates.
“It’s time for the patient Iraqi people to be treated with the dignity that God has given them,” al-Hassani said Sunday, accepting his new post.
“If we neglect our duties and fail, then we will hurt ourselves and the people will replace us with others,” al-Hassani said, urging cooperation among lawmakers.
Voting was by paper ballot, with each legislator allowed to select as many as three names to fill the posts of speaker and two deputies. The top three were al-Hassani with 215 votes, al-Shahristani with 157 and Taifour with 96.
Lawmakers appeared largely happy with the choice of the three men, but some expressed disappointment that a president was not chosen as planned.
“I am optimistic,” said Fathallah Ghazi of the Shiite-led United Iraqi Alliance. “But I think that it would have been better if the president’s council was named today because there was no reason to delay this issue.”
Others called for back-to-back meetings this week.
“After this delay, we need continuous meetings throughout the week until we finalize the main points,” Alliance leader Abdel-Aziz al-Hakim said.
But the next meeting was not scheduled until Wednesday, and al-Hassani urged patience, asking lawmakers to pledge their “allegiance to the country and the people, not to the party or the sect or the ethnicity.”
His remarks drew applause.
Shortly after the vote, what was believed to have been a mortar round slammed to ground near the lawmakers’ meeting place, the Foreign Ministry which is not far outside the fortified Green Zone. There were no reported casualties.
During the session, some lawmakers called for the release of detainees in U.S. military prisons, a day after dozens of insurgents attacked the Abu Ghraib prison west of Baghdad with car bombs, gunfire, and rocket propelled grenades.
One insurgent died in the 40-minute firefight that wounded 44 American troops and 13 prisoners.
An Internet statement purportedly by al Qaeda in Iraq claimed responsibility Sunday. The claim could not be independently verified.
It was unclear if the clash was aimed at helping prisoners escape. The militants did not breach the prison walls, and no detainees were set free.
Some soldiers were evacuated with serious injuries, officials said, but many wounds were minor and treated at the scene.
Abu Ghraib was at the center of a prisoner abuse scandal last year that erupted after photographs became public that showed soldiers with naked inmates piled in a human pyramid and humiliating them sexually.
The United States holds 10,500 prisoners in Iraq, with 3,446 at Abu Ghraib.
Also Sunday, the U.S. military announced that two U.S. service members had been killed – one Marine by an explosion during combat a day earlier in the central city of Hadithah and a soldier when a homemade bomb exploded on Sunday near the central city of Beiji.
Two car bombings in the troubled northern city of Mosul killed one Iraqi civilian and wounded several others, according to the military.
Details also were released of a U.S. investigation that confirmed a Bulgarian soldier was killed last month by friendly fire during a clash with U.S. soldiers.
The investigation found that Gurdi Gurdev was fatally wounded March 4 in southern Iraq when U.S. and Bulgarian forces “fired on each other in response to what each believed to be a hostile act from a legitimate military target,” according to a statement released by the U.S. military.
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