After noise and deals, Iraq gets a Parliament

Posted in Iraq | 20-Aug-04 | Author: Sabrina Tavernise| Source: The New York Times

Iraqi national conference at the Baghdad convention center.
Assembly to govern until January vote

BAGHDAD A political conference has selected a National Assembly, putting Iraq on the road to becoming a constitutional democracy in a jumbled process that never included a formal vote.

The political jockeying grew intense in its final hours on Wednesday, with some delegates climbing on a stage to protest what they said was a process monopolized by large political parties. In a final dramatic moment, some of the delegates withdrew their candidacies in protest. But they ultimately remained in the conference, giving the assembly legitimacy.

The result was a list of names to fill a 100-seat assembly that will act as a parliament, overseeing the interim government of Prime Minister Ayad Allawi until elections that are scheduled for January. The body as chosen will present a cross section of Iraqi society, taking in sheiks and social workers, bureaucrats and religious leaders.

One delegate, Hamid al-Kifaey, said the seat distribution had ended up relatively proportional to the religious and ethnic demographics of this country of 25 million, including Sunni and Shiite Arabs, Kurds and Turkmen.

"Today the interim national congress has been formed," said a tired-looking Fuad Masum, the Iraqi official who is organizing the conference. "It was legal."

While the result was hopeful, the process was messy. The conference took place in a giant, two-tiered auditorium inside the heavily fortified international zone in central Baghdad. It was the first public debate on a national scale since Saddam Hussein came to power in the 1960s, and every delegate was offered the chance to talk. Representatives of minorities yelled at the majorities. Women dressed in black cloth covering everything but their eyes talked into microphones. Someone read poetry. Delegates grilled moderators.

But most of the actual decision-making took place far from the cameras - in several rooms around the building, including one large one on the ground floor, delegates said. In those rooms, delegates from the major political and religious groups haggled over lists of names, trying to fulfill the assembly's task of putting forward 81 assembly members. (The final 19 spots had already been reserved for members of the former Governing Council set up by the U.S. occupation.)

It was that deal-making - which included the major Shiite parties Dawa and the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq; the Sunni Islamic Party; two Kurdish parties; the former exile group Iraqi National Congress; and Allawi's Iraqi National Accord - that infuriated smaller parties, whose members said they had been shut out.

The names were kept under wraps until the final, chaotic hours on Wednesday night when delegates tried to vote. "I cannot vote for names that I don't know," Aziz al-Yasseri, one of the protesters, said. "This is an unfair way, it is not a democratic way of doing things."

The deal-making produced strange bedfellows. Two Kurdish parties - for the most part secular with nationalist agendas - formed a loose alliance with religious Shiite groups.

Delegates did not begin to talk about voting until Wednesday afternoon. At one point, judges said neither of the two lists of candidates had met the 25 percent quota for female candidates. Some tribal leaders had refused to have women represent them, delegates said, which sent the parties back into negotiations.

The final revolt came less than an hour before the conference concluded at 9 p.m., when a delegate from a small party, Ismail Zayer, took the stage to say that his group had not had time to prepare and in protest was withdrawing the 81 names it had proposed. He accused the larger groups of sending about three dozen people to infiltrate his list and then withdraw at the last minute, so that he would not have time to redraw a proposal.

"They had no shame," he said in an exasperated voice. Still, his group did not quit the conference, and the assembly - chosen by the large parties - was legitimate, according to the four judges who presided over the conference's end. And because there was only one set of 81 names left to choose from, judges agreed that a show of hands would be enough for approval. The ballot boxes on the stage remained empty.

Masum, the conference organizer, said the smaller, independent parties had not been organized enough to form an effective coalition against the larger parties.

Samir Sumaitey, Iraq's former interior minister and a delegate, put it more succinctly. "It's democracy in action à la Iraq," he said. "Messy."