Iraqi Parliament to Convene as Sunni, Shiite Violence Continues

After weeks of uncertainty, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani announced today that Iraq's first official democratically elected Parliament would convene on March 12.

Final election results were announced Feb. 10, and the Parliament was originally supposed to meet two weeks after that, on Feb. 25. Sectarian bloodshed that spiralled out of control after the Feb. 22 bombing of a holy Shiite shrine in Samarra delayed that meeting.

A national unity government was put on hold as Sunni, Kurdish, and secular political leaders accused Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, a Shiite, of not doing enough to quell the violence. Some critics suggested that the Shiite-controlled Interior Ministry was not only tacitly allowing Shiite militias to wreak havoc, but was supporting violence against Sunnis.

On Sunday, Kurdish leader Barham Salih met with Shiite officials to urge them to withdraw al-Jaafari's name as prime minister.

"We call on the alliance to reconsider the nomination of Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari," he said.

Shrine Bombing Exposed Sectarian Cracks

U.S. military officials, however, have been encouraging all parties to convene the Parliament. In Baghdad over the last few days, Gen. John Abizaid, head of U.S. Central Command, met with al-Jaafari and Talabani. On Saturday in Qatar, Abizaid acknowledged how successful the attack on the shrine was as a political tactic.

"The shrine bombing exposed a lot of sectarian fissures that have been apparent for a while, but it was the first time I've seen it move in a direction that was unhelpful to the political process," he said. "It shows that we need a government of national unity to emerge in Iraq. Too many delays in the formation of a national unity government will negatively affect the security situation."

Two days later, Talabani made his announcement.

"I will call today for Parliament to hold the first session on the 12th of the current month since it is the last day that the constitution allows," he said to reporters this morning.

According to the Transitional Administrative Law -- the U.S.-sponsored interim constitution -- the new Parliament has to meet within two weeks of the Electoral Commission announcing certified results.

The Parliament, elected in December, missed that deadline, but the timetable allows for a 15-day extension. That second deadline ends on March 12.

A full constitution, ratified in a referendum in October, will be effective once a new government is formed.