Iraqi leaders closer to electing speaker

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BAGHDAD, Iraq – Hoping to break a months-long impasse over the formation of a permanent government, Iraqi leaders abruptly scheduled a session of parliament for Thursday amid indications that at least one key government post could be filled.

The move came as top U.S. officials in Washington and Baghdad intensified pressure on the leadership to reach a consensus and form a government more than four months after Iraq’s Dec. 15 national elections.

Indeed, some Iraqi parliamentarians said the decision to schedule the Thursday session was at the urging of U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad.

“The U.S. wants a government more than we do,” said Mahmoud Othman, a top Kurdish leader. Khalilzad “urged everyone to hold a parliament session.”

Members of the parliament said they hope to elect a speaker of the parliament. Then they hope to name the two deputy speakers, the president and two vice presidents. The president would then name a prime minister.

Disputes over who should be Iraq’s prime minister have stalled efforts to form a government. Sectarian violence has worsened, and the Bush administration’s hopes of stabilizing the country and withdrawing U.S. troops have faded.

President Bush on Wednesday urged Iraq’s leaders to form a unity government.

Bush, meeting with four U.S. governors who recently returned from a trip to Kuwait, Iraq and Afghanistan, said he recognizes that “vacuums in the political process create opportunity for malfeasance and harm.”

The decision to hold a parliamentary session raised hopes among U.S and Iraqi officials.

A State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said there were tentative signs that the political paralysis in Baghdad is ending and that names of individuals to fill top posts were being traded.

Late Wednesday, several Iraqi news agencies reported that the parliament blocs agreed to nominate Adnan al Dulaimi, a prominent Sunni politician, as speaker of the parliament and had agreed on nominees for the two deputy speakers.

As recently as this week, two U.S. officials had said they feared that an Iraqi government wouldn’t be in place until at least this summer, which would be a major setback for the Bush administration.

Some of the maneuvering appeared aimed at outflanking interim Prime Minister Ibrahim al Jaafari, who has resisted calls to step down, the State Department official said.

On Wednesday, al Jaafari reiterated that he wouldn’t withdraw his candidacy because he is the democratically elected nominee.

The top Shiite slate in the December elections, the United Iraqi Alliance, nominated al Jaafari in February to continue his tenure in the new government. That immediately drew ire from Sunni and Kurdish politicians, who charged that he was an ineffective leader and that sectarianism ballooned during his nine months in the post.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited Baghdad in early April in an attempt to break the deadlock and signaled that the United States wanted al Jaafari to step down.

The disagreement over al Jaafari has spilled over to debates about other key positions.

The Iraqi leadership’s inability to agree on a government, even as the country’s sectarian violence has surged, has frustrated many Iraqis, some of whom charge that the elections were fruitless.

Acting speaker Adnan Pachachi said he called for Thursday’s session because “I felt the people were demanding it.”

The parliament was supposed to meet Monday, but Pachachi said he canceled that session because the majority said they wanted more time to reach a solution.

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