Blasts Herald New Iraq Assembly Meeting

Iraq's Historic Freely Elected Parliament Begins Opening Session After Blasts Target Gathering

Iraq's first freely elected parliament in half a century began its opening session Wednesday after a series of explosions targeted the gathering. The opening marked a major milestone on the road to forming the nation's first government after the fall of Saddam Hussein.

The parliament's 275 members, elected during Jan. 30 elections, convened in an auditorium amid tight security in the heavily guarded Green Zone with U.S. helicopter gunships hovering overhead.

Minutes before lawmakers convened, more than half a dozen explosions detonated a few hundred yards away. The assembly area was not evacuated and it did not appear to have been struck. It was not immediately known what caused the blasts, which sent several plumes of smoke skyward.

The meeting began with a reading of verses from the Quran. Speeches from members of the interim government and political party leaders were to be followed with a swearing-in ceremony for parliament members.

"It is a great day in Iraqi history that its elected representatives meet," said Fuad Masoum, a Kurdish delegate. "This day coincides with a painful memory that has many meanings. ... Today, on this occasion, we celebrate the inauguration of parliament after the fall of this regime."

Wednesday marked the anniversary of the Saddam-ordered chemical attack in 1988 on the northern Kurdish town of Halabja, an attack that killed 5,000 people.

To prevent suicide car bomb attacks against Iraq's new lawmakers, authorities stepped up security around the heavily fortified Green Zone. Two bridges leading to the zone were shut down Tuesday, and roadblocks were erected on other streets leading to the area.

Meanwhile, a car bomb exploded near an army checkpoint in Baqouba, 35 miles northeast of Baghdad, inflicting some casualties, witnesses said. A defense ministry official in Baqouba, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the blast killed three Iraqi soldiers and wounded seven other people.

On Tuesday, Shiite Muslim officials said they failed to reach final agreement in talks with the Kurds who are mostly Sunni Muslim but secular and the Sunni Arabs.

Ali al-Dabagh, a member of the Shiite clergy-dominated United Iraqi Alliance, which won the most seats in the elections, said Tuesday that Shiite, Kurdish and Sunni Arab politicians would meet after the deputies are sworn in "to finalize things. We need two to three days to announce an agreement."

The Shiite alliance won 140 seats in the National Assembly but needs the Kurds' 75 seats to assemble the two-thirds majority required to elect a president, who will then nominate the prime minister.

Shiite talks with Sunni Arabs focused on naming a parliament speaker, and it remained unclear if they would present a candidate Wednesday. Although the speaker's role is mostly restricted to presiding over the assembly and moderating discussions, the job has a great deal of visibility.

Sunni Arabs are believed to make up the core of the insurgency, and including them in the political process is seen as a way to isolate the militants.

The United Iraqi Alliance and a Kurdish coalition agreed last week to form a coalition government with Shiite politician Ibrahim al-Jaafari as prime minister. In return, Jalal Talabani will become Iraq's first Kurdish president, though the presidency is a largely ceremonial post.

"The Kurds want to make some amendments on the deal, and we are going to finish soon, Thursday to be exact. We do not want to impose any name from our side regarding the post of the parliament speaker. We want the Sunnis to nominate some people for this post, but until now they have not done this," al-Dabagh said.

Sunni Arab negotiators at Tuesday's meeting included interim President Ghazi al-Yawer a possible choice for parliament speaker the Iraqi Islamic Party and Iraqi nationalist leader Adnan Pachachi.

Sunni Arabs, who make up only about 20 percent of the population but were the dominant group under Saddam's regime, largely stayed away from the elections either to honor a boycott call or because they feared being attacked at the polls by insurgents.

The U.S.-led coalition came under pressure as Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi announced plans to withdraw the country's 3,000 troops in September as the Iraqis slowly take control, a move that could complicate efforts to keep the peace.

Berlusconi's remarks represented the first time a country has connected a troop withdrawal to the ability of Iraqis to take control over their security.

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