BAGHDAD, Iraq – In a chaotic session marred by shouting, finger-pointing and walkouts by Iraq’s top leaders, the new parliament failed Tuesday to choose a speaker – an impasse that brought tensions to the surface and raised concerns about a government that still isn’t in place two months after landmark elections.
Some politicians argued that the delay could force a six-month extension to the Aug. 15 deadline for drafting a permanent constitution – a vital step in organizing the next round of elections.
“I think the time won’t be enough. We might need an extension,” said Ali al-Dabagh, a member of the Shiite-led United Iraqi Alliance.
The National Assembly’s second meeting ever was certainly its stormiest – marked by outbursts of anger and wrangling among Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish legislators. The session was first delayed for nearly three hours, then abruptly closed to the media, its live TV feed cut off.
The Sunni Arab minority – dominant under former dictator Saddam Hussein and believed to be the backbone of the insurgency – was given until Sunday to come up with a candidate to serve as speaker of the 275-seat parliament.
The Alliance and the Kurdish coalition want an Arab Sunni to hold the position as a way of healing rifts with the Sunnis, many of whom boycotted the Jan. 30 elections or simply feared attacks at the polls.
“We saw that things were confused today, so we gave (the Sunnis) a last chance,” said Hussein al-Sadr, a Shiite cleric and member of interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi’s coalition. “We expect the Sunni Arab brothers to nominate their candidate. Otherwise, we will vote on a candidate on Sunday.”
More meetings were scheduled for this week. “There’s a consensus that the talks should continue tonight and in the coming days so that Sunday’s session will be better,” Alliance negotiator Abdul Karim al-Anzi said.
Iraqis, already frustrated with drawn-out negotiations, were angered by the meeting.
“They haven’t been able to even name a parliament speaker, so how will they rule Iraq when they’re only after their personal interests and gains?” said 35-year-old Sunni Sahib Jassim. “They don’t care about the Iraqi people.”
In an interview Sunday on CNN, Army Gen. John Abizaid also expressed concern, saying: “The more uncertainty, the greater chance for escalated violence.”
President Bush said the differences “will be resolved through debate and persuasion instead of force and intimidation.”
“The free people of Iraq are now doing what Saddam Hussein never could: making Iraq a positive example for the entire Middle East,” he said.
Some legislators argued the divisions reflected Iraq’s new democracy.
“People should get used to seeing different opinions being discussed,” al-Anzi said.
Tuesday’s drama left some questioning how Iraq’s new lawmakers would tackle more important issues as they shape the country’s democratic transformation.
The assembly still needs to name a president and two deputies, who will in turn nominate a prime minister.