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Formation of Iraqi government could take till May

Fri., Feb. 3, 2006, midnight

BAGHDAD, Iraq – Iraqi efforts to form a government are only now beginning in earnest nearly two months after key elections, and the hard bargaining could take weeks – if not months – to produce a new leadership. That could delay the eventual drawdown of U.S. forces.

American diplomats are putting intense pressure on the Iraqis to agree quickly on a government to include Shiites, Kurds and Sunni Arabs, the community that forms the backbone of the insurgency.

Until a new government is in place, it is unlikely the United States and its coalition partners can move to the next step – pulling out some of the 160,000-strong multinational force. The top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. George Casey, has said he may recommend cutbacks this spring.

Major roadblocks stand in the way of a deal for a new government, and thus for any drawdowns – including control of the country’s security forces, a definition of terrorism, unfinished business on the new constitution and the deep distrust fanned by tit-for-tat killings.

Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish politicians have been holding informal contacts since the Dec. 15 balloting, but they are waiting for ratification of the election results before tackling the issues in earnest. Certification of the votes is expected next week.

Once that step is complete, President Jalal Talabani must convene the new 275-member assembly within two weeks. Under the law, parliament then has 30 days to elect a new national president.

Talabani said Wednesday his Kurdish coalition will nominate him for a second term, and he expects to count on the support of Shiites and others for the mostly ceremonial position.

The new president has 15 days to name a new prime minister from the ranks of the Shiite religious parties that won the biggest number of parliament seats – 128. The prime minister-designate then has 30 days to present his Cabinet to parliament for approval by majority vote.

If the Iraqis take the maximum time allowed for each step, it would be May before a government is in place. Vice President Adil Abdul-Mahdi, a Shiite widely mentioned as possible prime minister, said Wednesday he expected to finish the talks by mid-March.

However, negotiations in Iraq often move at a glacial pace, and deadlines written in the law are sometimes ignored – such as during last year’s deliberations on the constitution.

Iraqis chose the outgoing parliament in January 2005, but their leaders couldn’t agree on a government until the end of April.


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