April 3, 2005

Iraqi Politicians Complain of Flaws in Interim Law

By EDWARD WONG

New York Times

BAGHDAD, Iraq, April 2 - After weeks of factional haggling that have prompted warnings of increasing civil distress, several leading Iraqi politicians have begun saying that flawed measures in the interim constitution are partly to blame for the failure to form a new government.

The document, which Iraqi officials co-wrote with the Americans, was approved in March 2004 and is the most enduring political legacy of the formal American occupation. It is called the transitional administrative law, or the TAL, and sets the timetable for elections and the rules for installing a government, and it tries to address difficult issues, like the question of property restoration for Kurds exiled from the oil-rich city of Kirkuk.

Senior politicians, particularly Shiite Arabs, are now attacking the TAL for enshrining a process that they see as contributing to the deadlock. They are especially critical of the measure that requires a two-thirds vote by the national assembly to appoint a president, and they point out that the law fails to set a deadline for the appointment.

"This is really sort of a weakness in the TAL," said Adnan Ali, a deputy head of the Dawa Islamic Party, the Shiite party whose leader, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, is the top candidate for prime minister. "It's an obstruction rather than an assurance. This should have been done differently."

Mr. Ali and other politicians acknowledge that hardheaded self-interest among the various factions has caused the delays, but they say the transitional law could have set a lower bar for consensus and specified more deadlines.

In most countries with parliamentary systems, the party that wins a simple majority of the seats has the right to install an executive government, legal experts say. Here, the main Shiite bloc, the United Iraqi Alliance, won 140 of 275 assembly seats in the Jan. 30 elections, but must ally with one or more partners to form a coalition government because of the two-thirds rule.

The most obvious partner is the Kurdistan Alliance, which won 75 seats. But, nine weeks after the elections, the two sides have yet to finalize any deal. Officials from the two groups also say the process has slowed because they are trying to bring in the parties of Ayad Allawi, the interim prime minister, and the Sunni Arabs.

Iraqis have grown disillusioned and restless, and the day-to-day workings of ministries have slowed because of the uncertainty. American commanders have warned of a possible rise in violence.

A car bomb exploded Saturday at a police station in the town of Khan Bani Saad, 10 miles north of Baghdad, killing four policemen and one civilian and wounding three policemen and a civilian, the Interior Ministry said. Also on Saturday, the military said a marine was killed Friday by small-arms fire in Ramadi.

Some American diplomats here and some Iraqi officials who helped write the transitional law say the process is unfolding as it should. They emphasize that the two-thirds requirement was meant to prevent any single group from dominating the new government. They also say they did not set a deadline on appointing the president to avoid "micromanaging" the process.

"The thinking simply was to have a balancing of powers and interests in the transitional period," said Feisal al-Istrabadi, a senior fellow at the DePaul University College of Law and a drafter of the transitional law. "It seemed to me that it was appropriate that a supermajority be required so no one party will dominate. I still believe that was the right decision."

He said he did not think that the negotiations had "taken an inordinate amount of time."

The transitional law requires that the assembly appoint, by a two-thirds vote, a president and two vice presidents, called the presidency council. Those officers then have two weeks to appoint a prime minister, who would in turn select a cabinet. The assembly would approve those positions by a majority vote.

If the presidency council fails to choose a prime minister within the two weeks, the assembly can appoint one by a two-thirds vote.

A senior American diplomat said that the "genius of the TAL is it compels disparate Iraqi political interests to compromise."

"If it acted by a simple majority," he said, "it would actually promote a civil war rather than compromise."

The same diplomat, though, acknowledged that he was surprised there was no government yet.

The two-thirds measure has irked officials in the main Shiite bloc. Shiite Arabs, the majority of the population, were long oppressed under Baathist rule and are eager to assume power.

Saad Jawad Qindeel, an assembly member and a representative of a major Shiite party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, said: "Legally speaking, we in the United Iraqi Alliance don't need any coalitions. We have enough votes, more than 50 percent of the assembly seats."

Several other measures in the law could be slowing down the political process, Iraqi officials say. The law sets a deadline of Aug. 15 for the national assembly to agree on a first draft of the permanent constitution, but also gives the assembly the option of pushing back the deadline - and the elections for a full-term government - by up to half a year.

"There is great enthusiasm from everyone to draft the constitution," said Jalaladeen al-Saghir, a conservative Shiite cleric who sits on the assembly and is a deputy of the Supreme Council. "But it's possible to extend the deadline for six months, and this is fine."

The transitional law also used purposefully vague language regarding the timing of restoration of property stripped from Kurds by Saddam Hussein's government in Kirkuk: Article 58 merely says it should be done "expeditiously." This issue in particular has been a big stumbling block in the negotiations, as the Kurds press the Shiites to speed up restoration.

The committee that drafted the transitional law included members of the political parties on the American-appointed Iraqi Governing Council. Adnan Pachachi, the former foreign minister and exile, served as chairman. Officials from the Coalition Provisional Authority, the governing American body, worked with the committee.

Mr. Istrabadi said the best evidence so far of the transitional law's success was the fact that the first set of elections took place as scheduled and, at least for a period, inspired confidence in the Iraqi people.

Still, the law will face many more tests. At the assembly meeting on Tuesday, the temporary head of the assembly kicked reporters out of the room and forced state-run television to cut to a popular folk singer belting out Iraq's national anthem, even though the transitional law says that "meetings of the national assembly shall be public."