Iraq lawmakers try to break deadlock over speaker

January 18, 2009 10:26:21 AM PST
Iraqi lawmakers will form a committee to try to break the deadlock over the choice of a new speaker after Sunnis failed to reach consensus on a nominee, the deputy speaker said Sunday. The Sunni speaker Mahmoud al-Mashhadani resigned on Dec. 23 amid widespread complaints about his erratic behavior, leaving the key post vacant for nearly a month.

The bid to resolve the dispute comes just two weeks before key provincial elections aimed in large part at empowering minority Sunnis, who spearheaded the insurgency that erupted after the collapse of Saddam's regime in the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.

His replacement must be a Sunni Arab under a system that distributes key positions to the different religious and ethnic communities. But the main Sunni bloc, the Iraqi Accordance Front, has failed to agree on a candidate.

The disagreement threatens to block the 275-seat parliament from making key decisions on legislation. The Shiite deputy speaker can preside over sessions, but the Sunnis object to participating until a speaker from their bloc is elected.

Lawmakers convened on Jan. 11 for the first time this year with deputy speaker Khalid al-Attiyah at the helm. But they have delayed a vote on a new speaker to allow the Sunnis time to reach agreement amid bitter infighting over a choice.

Al-Attiyah met with the political blocs in parliament Sunday and decided to form a committee to name a candidate and set a date for a vote.

The dispute centers on the choice of the largest group in the Accordance Front, the Iraqi Islamic Party, which has pushed for Ayad al-Sammaraie, a prominent lawmaker who lived for years in exile in Britain during Saddam Hussein's rule.

Smaller factions have advocated other candidates and accused the Islamic Party of trying to dominate the bloc and of conspiring with the Shiites and Kurds to oust al-Mashhadani to bolster its position in the government at the expense of other Sunnis.

The head of one of the smaller groups, the National Dialogue Council, offered three proposals on Sunday, including naming himself as a candidate along with al-Sammaraie, choosing the moderate Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi as speaker or allowing al-Mashhadani to put his name in to be re-elected. All of Khalaf al-Ilyan's suggestions were rejected.

U.S. commanders have warned the uncertainty over Iraq's political stability could lead to new violence at a time when the more than 140,000 U.S. troops are facing cutbacks under the incoming Obama administration.

U.S. and Iraqi officials are hoping the Jan. 31 provincial elections will help unify the country's fractured sectarian and ethnic groups.

In the first sign of problems in the run-up to the vote, the independent electoral commission said it is investigating allegations that nearly 60 candidates have submitted "fraudulent" education certificates.

The head of the electoral commission Faraj al-Haidari said the candidates apparently had lied about their level of education due to a requirement that they at least have a high school degree.

But he said the panel was asking education authorities to verify the degrees before excluding candidates.

Judge Raheem al-Ugaily said his Public Integrity Commission had detected a total of 81 fraudulent certificates out of about 3,000 checked so far, but not all had been forwarded yet to electoral officials, which has the final word on the issue.

Voters are set to choose members of ruling councils in 14 of the 18 provinces. More than 14,000 candidates are running for 444 council seats.

The U.N. has expressed confidence that any attempts at fraud or tampering with ballots will be detected as the election will be under tight scrutiny.