Iraqi National Assembly readies for second session

Monday, March 28, 2005

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Al-Qaida in Iraq released a video Sunday claiming to show the murder of an Interior Ministry official, while debate raged about religion's place in Iraq's much-anticipated new government as lawmakers were summoned to their second session.

As frustration grows over the slow progress in forming a new government two months after historic elections, guards fired on government workers demanding their wages in Baghdad, injuring three people.

Supporters of interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi criticized the involvement of the religious authority in politics, while Abdel-Aziz al-Hakim, leader of the Shiite-led United Iraqi Alliance, defended the role of the clergy.

"As long as we're alive and as long as Iraq and the believers are there, we will continue to work according to the directions and the advice of the religious authority," al-Hakim told the U.S.-funded Alhurra TV station, according to a transcript provided by his office.

"The religious authority does not want to intervene in the details. It just gives direction when it thinks it will be beneficial," he added.

Secular-minded politicians have expressed concern about the influence of religion in the National Assembly in which the Shiite-led United Iraqi Alliance holds 140 of the 275 seats.

In a letter to the alliance, politicians who ran under an Allawi coalition warned that allowing religion to play a greater role in Iraq's government could "lead to instability in the relations between political forces in the Iraqi arena."

Shiite leaders repeatedly have denied they are seeking an Islamic state like that of neighboring Iran, saying they plan to include Kurdish and Sunni Arabs in the government.

Shiites make up about 60 percent of Iraq's 26 million people, while Sunni Arabs account for about 20 percent. Kurds, who are Sunni Muslims but mostly secular, are 15 percent to 20 percent of the population.

The top U.N. envoy in Iraq, Ashraf Qazi, said Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani told him during a meeting Sunday in Najaf that the Shiite spiritual leader did not intend to involve himself in any political process, except for expressing his opinion during crises. The alliance came together under al-Sistani's guidance.

Choosing high officials

The National Assembly was expected to hold its second session on Tuesday to choose a parliament speaker and two deputies, but it was not known if they would name the country's new president, expected to be Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani. The president will be responsible for nominating a prime minister, expected to be the alliance's Ibrahim al-Jaafari.

The first session, on March 16, was to swear in the parliament. But officials have pushed back their second session amid negotiations over Cabinet posts.

In a meeting Sunday, Alliance members named former nuclear scientist Hussain al-Shahristani as their candidate to be a deputy to the parliament speaker, negotiator Ali al-Dabagh said, adding they were to choose a candidate for the president's deputy position today.

Militants from Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's terror network posted a video on the Internet showing the purported execution of a man identifying himself as Col. Ryadh Gatie Olyway.

The man displayed his Interior Ministry identification card and said he was a liaison officer with the American forces. Behind the men was the black banner of al-Qaida in Iraq.

Olyway said he provided the U.S. military with the names "of officers of the former Iraqi army, who are Sunnis, and their addresses." At the end of the video, Olyway was blindfolded and appeared to be shot once in the head. The authenticity of the video could not be verified.

An Interior Ministry official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Olyway worked as a liaison officer between the interior and oil ministries and was kidnapped more than a month ago. He had not seen the video and could not confirm whether the hostage was Olyway.

In Baghdad, bodyguards for Science and Technology Minister Rashad Mandan Omar opened fire on a crowd of protesters who had gathered in front of the ministry's offices to demand their full wages, said Hamid Balasem, an engineer at the Science and Technology Ministry.

Balasem said about 50 ministry guards were demonstrating because they said they were paid only part of their wages.

"We didn't carry any weapons or have any intention of shooting, but the minister's body guards started firing on us," said Haithem Jassim, one of three people injured in the melee.

It was unclear why the guards opened fire. No one was available to comment at the ministry.

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