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New Iraqi lawmakers meet as violence flares

Patrick Quinn Associated Press

BAGHDAD, Iraq –Two years after the fall of Saddam Hussein, Iraqi legislators were sworn in Wednesday as members of the 275-seat National Assembly, vowing to uphold freedom and democracy. But before taking their oath, they had to endure mortar barrages and wailing air raid sirens as insurgents made their presence felt.

The deputies failed to set a date to reconvene, did not elect a speaker or even nominate a president and vice president – all of which they had hoped to do. Instead, the session was spent celebrating the moment, and the enormous obstacles Iraq has overcome.

“This day marks a new birth for all Iraqis. It marks the birth of the parliament,” said Ibrahim al-Jaafari, the Shiite politician expected to be Iraq’s next prime minister.

Many of the new deputies wore traditional robes trimmed in gold, and mingled with austere Shiite clerics in black robes and turbans. Men thought to be pegged for government jobs mostly wore tan or gray suits, while nearly all the 85 women lawmakers wore headscarves.

Absent from the assembly hall were large numbers of Sunni Arabs, thought to make up the core of the insurgency. Sunnis, who were favored under Saddam’s regime, mostly stayed away from the national elections – either to honor a boycott call or because of fears of being attacked at the polls by militants.

President Bush called the session a “bright moment” for Iraq, but added there was no timetable for withdrawing U.S. troops. “We’ve always said this is a process, and today was a step in that process. It’s a hopeful moment,” Bush said in Washington.

A U.S. soldier died in a roadside bomb blast south of Baghdad, the military said, while a car bomb northeast of the capital killed four Iraqis and injured 15. As of Wednesday, at least 1,517 members of the U.S. military have died since the beginning of the Iraq war in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.

While it was a historic day for Iraqi democracy, Wednesday also served as a reminder of a scarred past – the 17th anniversary of a chemical attack that Saddam ordered on the northern Kurdish town of Halabja.

“This day coincides with a painful memory that has many meanings. On this day in 1988, former regime planes bombed Halabja and martyred 5,000 people,” said Fuad Masoum, a Kurdish delegate. “Today, on this occasion, we celebrate the inauguration of parliament after the fall of this regime.”

Although Wednesday could have been a day of celebration on Baghdad’s streets, many were devoid of traffic – blocked off by security forces fearing suicide attacks and car bombs. Traffic restrictions also kept many people away from work.

So Iraqis instead gathered in homes to watch the ceremony live on state-run television and Arab satellite channels.

“It is a new stage for us that makes people feel freedom and the beginning of a real Iraqi state. It will make us feel that we’re no different from others in the world in applying the democratic process,” said Kadum Ali Audah, 35, who works in the communications ministry.

Elected on Jan. 30, when insurgent attacks killed more than 40 people, the National Assembly ended its first session Wednesday with an oath to protect Iraq’s “federal democratic system” and “public and private liberties.”

Cleric Abdel Aziz al-Hakim, leader of the Shiite-dominated United Iraqi Alliance, which holds the largest block of assembly seats, led a series of prayers thanking God for giving Iraqis the courage to cast aside their fear and vote.

“This is a great historical achievement that challenged the bombs of death and those with a deep hatred of life,” he said, referring to the insurgency.

The failure to appoint top officials stemmed from the inability of Shiites, Kurds and Sunni Arabs to agree on a speaker for the new legislature as well as renewed haggling over Cabinet posts. Interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi reportedly rejected an offer of the defense minister’s job.

The interim constitution has no set time limit on forming the government after the National Assembly convenes. But once it elects a president with a two-thirds majority, a prime minister must be chosen within two weeks.

Talks among Shiites, Kurds – who are mostly Sunni Muslim but secular – and Sunni Arabs have focused on a speaker, a high-profile position designed mainly to serve as moderator of parliamentary debate. Shiites and Kurds want a Sunni Arab for the post, but have been unable to choose which one.

Although they make up only about 20 percent of the population, Sunni Arabs dominated the government under Saddam, whose regime was toppled on April 9, 2003. Of the assembly’s 275 members, 182 are Shiites and just 17 are Sunni Arab.

Mohammad Bashar al-Faidhi, a spokesman for the Association of Muslim Scholars, a group of prominent Sunni clerics, said the assembly did not represent all the Iraqi people.

“We hope that this government will abide by the fact that it was not elected by the majority,” al-Faidhi said in an interview broadcast on the Dubai-based Al-Arabiya satellite channel. “It does not represent all Iraq.”

Insurgents, hoping to disrupt the ceremony just before it began, fired seven mortar rounds in quick succession at the convention center that temporarily houses parliament in the heavily fortified Green Zone. U.S. Apache attack helicopters hovered overhead.

The explosions and air raid sirens sent people outside scurrying for cover. Inside, the blasts brought a startled silence to assembled delegates but did not prevent the ceremony – which started 34 minutes late, perhaps partly because of the attacks.

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