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Iraq Parliament Opens, But Still No Coalition Government
BAGHDAD – Iraq moved to bolster its shaky democracy on Monday with the opening of its second parliament since the US-led ouster of Saddam Hussein in 2003, more than three months after an election stalemate.
A rousing rendition of the national anthem "My Nation" signalled the start of the inaugural session of the Council of Representatives, as hundreds of lawmakers and dignitaries gathered for the occasion.
But the ceremony gave way to political reality as it ended only 20 minutes later, reflecting the failure of political groups to assemble a viable coalition since a March 7 general election.
No party leader has managed to hammer out a power-sharing deal since the election, with the political vacuum dogging Iraq only two months before US combat troops leave the war-battered state.
The parliamentary session was a procedural affair with MPs taking the oath collectively while officials from the United Nations, Arab League and the US embassy, among others, looked on.
Diplomats and politicians have warned a new government continues to appear some way off, possibly months.
US forces are steadily being pulled out of Iraq and a new administration in Baghdad is seen as key to a smooth withdrawal of all American soldiers -- 88,000 are still stationed in country -- by the end of 2011.
Former premier Iyad Allawi's Iraqiya bloc, with 91 seats, won the election, followed closely by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's State of Law Alliance, on 89 seats, but neither has won enough backing from other parties to form a government.
Allawi and Maliki shook hands in parliament shortly before Monday's opening session. The two men held a long-awaited meeting on Saturday, which was described as "friendly and positive."
Hamid Fadhel, a professor in politics at Baghdad University, however, cautioned that Allawi's insistence that he has the right to lead the country, having won the ballot, and Maliki's refusal to bend, makes more delays likely.
"These negotiations will need more time, there will be a long argument that takes months, because it will not end shortly," he said.
Despite losing the election, Maliki has battled to retain his post, calling for multiple recounts of ballots he said were fraudulent, which delayed the certification of results until earlier this month.
State of Law has also formed a coalition with the election's third-placed grouping, the Iraqi National Alliance, in a bid to cancel out Allawi's narrow lead.
But the newly created National Alliance still remains four seats short of the 163 seats it needs for a majority in the 325-seat parliament, and has yet to name a leader it will put forward for the post of prime minister.
As a result, the selection of a new parliamentary speaker and president -- meant to precede the naming of a new premier -- is likely to be part of a grand bargain between Iraq's competing political blocs and religious groups.
And that will further complicate the formation of a new government.
Several MPs have likened the current government formation process to that which followed Iraq's first post-invasion parliamentary elections in 2005, when six months passed before a prime minister was chosen.
At the time, Iraq's competing religious groups jockeyed for key posts, with a Shiite taking the premiership, a Sunni Arab being named parliament speaker, and a Kurd becoming president.
Violence, meanwhile, remains endemic in Iraq. Government figures showed 337 people were killed in unrest in May, the fourth time this year the overall death toll has been higher than in the same month of 2009.
All US combat troops are due to leave Iraq by September 1 as part of a phased drawdown of forces which will see the remaining training and advisory force of 50,000 soldiers withdraw from the country in 2011.