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Iraqi lawmakers question legality of long stalemate

BAGHDAD — Iraq’s Parliament has met once, for 18 minutes on June 14, since the close outcome of national elections more than four months ago created a political stalemate. On Monday — another day of staggering heat here — parliamentary leaders delayed a session scheduled for this week, raising questions about whether their inaction is now breaking the law.

Under the Constitution, a new president should be chosen within 30 days of Parliament’s first session.

"It is not legal," said Hayder al-Abadi, a spokesman for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s State of Law political alliance. "It reflects the inability of the slates and blocs to agree."

But constitutional interpretation is the job of the courts, and for now the slow process of backroom negotiating between the various parties to form a functioning government will proceed. Some news reports suggested that Parliament might try to meet again in two weeks, a notion some politicians dismissed.

"This information is incorrect," said Mahmoud Othman, a representative of the Kurdish parliamentary bloc. "Who said it is two weeks? It will not be held unless they agree on everything. It may happen in two weeks, maybe in one month, maybe tomorrow."

The two leading politicians who emerged from the March 7 parliamentary elections are Ayad Allawi, a former interim prime minister who heads the Iraqiya list, and al-Maliki, whose alliance finished close behind. Allawi’s coalition won two more seats than al-Maliki’s, but neither came away with a mandate to form a new government. Candidates loyal to the radical Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr, whose militia fought the Americans in the early days of the Iraq war, also won an influential bloc of seats.

The political stalemate is playing out against a delicate backdrop: The country is still plagued by persistent violence that claims the lives of hundreds of Iraqis a month, and the United States military is in the process of sharply reducing the number of forces in the country. At the height of the troop surge in 2007, almost 165,000 American troops were assigned here, but the United States is on a path to reduce the total to 50,000 by the end of August. Today there are close to 70,000 American service members in Iraq.

Under the withdrawal plan, all American forces here will be gone by the end of 2011, but most diplomats, politicians and military officers expect that some forces will stay on after that. One of the first orders of business for the United States after a new Iraqi government is formed will be to hold discussions about amending the security agreement between the United States and Iraq to allow forces to remain behind after 2011.

Iraq’s political process also has regional consequences. Shortly after the election, many of Iraq’s politicians visited Iran to discuss government formation — Iran, like Iraq, is a majority-Shiite country in a region historically dominated by Sunni Muslims. Saudi Arabia — a country that supports Allawi’s coalition, which became the standard-bearer for Sunnis in Iraq — publicly urged Iraq on Monday to "speedily" form a new government, The Associated Press reported.

The Iraqi public, weary from persistent violence and a lack of basic services — many here have electricity for just a couple of hours per day — have come to expect little from their political leaders. The three certainties of Iraqi life these days are violence, political paralysis and searing heat.

"We expected this," said Alai Abdul, 37, who works in a Baghdad tobacco shop. "We didn’t get any benefit from the government of al-Maliki. There is no opportunity for jobs, there are no businesses."

Lively discussions of politics have become a staple of everyday life. "We talk about this every single day, in taxis, everywhere," said Omar Waleed, 30, who was working in an un-air-conditioned Internet cafe in Baghdad on Monday.

Waleed speaks fluent English and works with the Americans on a Provincial Reconstruction Team, a group of civilians, diplomats and military personnel who have been deployed around the country. He said of Iraq’s political class: "They make the Constitution and they make the laws, but they don’t follow them."

He said the public wanted democracy, but the country seemed incapable of producing a leadership class that could provide it.

"Our people are used to it," he said. "We are so depressed with the whole government."


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