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from the Washington Post

Iraqi parliament meets

Security tightened; insurgents fire mortars nearby

Washington Post

BAGHDAD, Iraq – Amid tight security and the sound of explosions, Iraq’s new parliament met for the first time Wednesday as Iraqi politicians and citizens alike urged lawmakers to stop bickering, form a new government and tackle the country’s problems, particularly the insurgency.

The source of the blasts, which apparently came from mortars, was under investigation by the U.S. military. The explosions rattled windows in the auditorium inside Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone, where lawmakers gathered at 11 a.m. (3 a.m. Fort Wayne time) for the first meeting of a freely elected parliament in Iraq in almost 50 years.

U.S. helicopters hovered overhead, and several bridges approaching the Green Zone were closed because of the threat of suicide bombings, car bomb attacks and other potential insurgent strikes.

Coalition intelligence sources had received numerous reports that insurgents would try to disrupt the assembly’s opening with a major strike, and traffic in many areas of the capital ground to a halt as Iraqi police and coalition forces manned checkpoints to search vehicles and check identification.

In the worst violence of the morning, a car bomb exploded near an army checkpoint in Baqubah, 35 miles north of Baghdad, killing three Iraqi soldiers and wounding eight other people.

The opening of the National Assembly was delayed twice because top political leaders wanted to have a coalition government ready to take office before the parliament convened. But negotiations between the two best represented groups – a Shiite coalition with 140 members known as the United Iraqi Alliance and a Kurdish coalition with 75 lawmakers – have bogged down.

Citizens and religious leaders concerned about the country’s political drift and security situation forced the National Assembly to go ahead with Wednesday’s session, which was scheduled to mark the anniversary of a deadly chemical weapons attack on the Kurdish town of Halabja, about 150 miles northeast of Baghdad, that was ordered in 1988 by Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. About 5,000 people were killed in the attack.

The meeting, televised live across Iraq, opened with readings from the Quran and speeches from senior members of the interim government. It continued for about two hours with 275 members being sworn in.

In the absence of a coalition government, the interim Iraqi government led by Prime Minister Ayad Allawi remains in charge. A final accord on policy goals would smooth the way for the formation of a coalition government with Ibrahim Jafari, the interim vice president who heads the Shiite Dawa party, serving as prime minister. Jalal Talabani, a key Kurdish leader, would fill the ceremonial post of president. But appointment of the government could be days or weeks away, Iraqis involved in the talks said.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi of Italy, one of the United States’ most ardent supporters on Iraq, said Tuesday he intended to begin withdrawing his country’s troops in September.