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Iraq: Would-Be Coalition Partners Continue Talks To Form Government

Ibrahim al-Ja'fari will be the new prime minister Talks on the formation of a coalition Iraqi government continue ahead of the inaugural session of the National Assembly, scheduled for tomorrow. The Shi'a-dominated United Iraqi Alliance, which won more than half the seats in parliament, is locked in negotiations with Kurdish political groups.

Prague, 15 March 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The United Iraqi Alliance and an alliance of Kurdish parties won the two biggest blocs of seats in Iraq's elections on 30 January.

But they have failed over the past six weeks to agree on the shape of a new Iraqi government.

Today, the United Iraqi Alliance, which won 51 percent of the assembly seats, and the Kurds, who garnered 27 percent, continued their attempts to form a coalition to get the necessary two-thirds majority to form a government. The negotiations come only one day before a new parliament is set to convene in Baghdad.

Ali al-Dabagh, a member of the United Iraqi Alliance, says both sides have agreed that the 275-member National Assembly will convene tomorrow, even if they have not yet reached agreement.

Kamran al-Karadaghi is a regional expert with the London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR). He said it is unlikely that a deal will be reached before then.

"Tomorrow [16 March], it will be opened, but this doesn't mean that there will be a final agreement on the establishment of the government. The idea is that [parliament] will be opened anyway, and they will elect a speaker and his deputies. But negotiations [on the government] will continue," al-Karadaghi said.

The would-be coalition partners have failed to agree in several key areas.

Yahia Said, a researcher specializing in Iraq and other transition nations at the London School of Economics, said the main disagreement is over the status of the ethnically divided and oil-rich city of Kirkuk.

"Some of the Kurdish politicians are insisting on having assurances about the status of Kirkuk in order to [make it] a part of the Kurdish region. And also about the issue of the resettlement of Kurdish refugees. They are demanding assurances on that before they could enter the government," Said said.

Kurds see Kirkuk as a part of their homeland, a city that was stripped from them by an Arabization campaign under former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. Iraqi Arabs, however, see the city as an integral part of the Iraqi state. The city is populated by Kurds, who favor the move, but also by Turkomans and Arabs, who do not.

Analysts say the argument is essentially about who controls the area's oil revenues.

The Shi'a want to delay a decision on the future of Kirkuk until a permanent Iraqi constitution is ratified, a development due to take place at the end of the year.

The other contentious issue is the future status of the Kurdish militia fighters called peshmerga. Iraqi Arabs have been calling for the peshmerga to be disbanded or to be integrated into the Iraqi Army.

Said believes this problem could be settled soon. Politicians appear to be in agreement that the Iraqi Army will operate in Kurdish regions, with the peshmerga becoming part of the national force. But the details are still being hammered out.

Al-Karadaghi says the status of Islam is also an issue. Kurdish politicians fear a Shi'ite brand of Islam might be imposed on the country. "[The Kurdish politicians] also want a clear commitment that the Iraqi Alliance, the Shi'as, will not enforce a clause in the constitution, which will make Islam the main source of legislation," al-Karadaghi said.

The majority of Iraqi Kurds are Sunni Muslims.

Al-Karadaghi said the distribution of posts within the government also remains to be settled and has potential for disagreement.

However, several key posts have already been settled. It has been agreed that Jalal Talabani, the head of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, will be named to the largely ceremonial post of president. Ibrahim al-Ja'fari, the conservative Islamic Da'wah (Call) Party leader, will be the new prime minister. He is a Shi'a.

Analysts can only speculate when a final deal may be reached.

"[Yesterday], one of the main members of the [United] Iraqi Alliance, the Shi'a group, Adel Abdul Mehdi, in an interview, sounded very sure that [the deal will be done] within a week. But I am not sure," al-Karadaghi said.

Until an agreement is reached, interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi will carry on his duties.

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