Iraqi parliament suspends sessions
BAGHDAD – Iraqi legislators suspended parliamentary sessions Thursday for the rest of the month to mark the Muslim religious season – the end of much-delayed efforts to pass U.S.-backed legislation aimed at achieving national reconciliation this year.Defense Secretary Robert Gates, meanwhile, welcomed a report from his top commander in Iraq that violence has declined 60 percent in the last six months. But Gates warned that “people are getting impatient” for the Iraqi government to take advantage of improved security and move toward needed political reforms.The Sunni speaker of parliament announced the decision to suspend sessions after days of debate over a draft bill that would allow thousands of former members of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party to return to their government jobs. The measure is among the 18 benchmarks set by the United States to encourage reconciliation.Speaker Mahmoud al-Mashhadani said the legislative body would not hold another session until the end of December because many lawmakers would be traveling to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, for the annual Islamic pilgrimage.Others were expected to leave the capital to spend Eid al-Adha, or the feast of sacrifice, with their families elsewhere in Iraq or abroad. The holiday begins around Dec. 20.The suspension was the latest setback to efforts by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Shiite-dominated government to bring minority Sunnis into the political process.The 275-member parliament came under criticism over the summer for taking the month of August off despite the lack of progress on passing the legislation, including a law to ensure the equitable distribution of Iraq’s oil riches.Many lawmakers have residences in neighboring Jordan, and the chamber rarely holds a full house.Before the legislature adjourned, a shouting match erupted when a Shiite lawmaker accused a powerful Sunni Arab politician of harboring sectarian sentiments against Iraq’s Shiite majority.The public outburst could renew calls by Shiite politicians that Adnan al-Dulaimi, the Sunni politician, be stripped of his parliamentary immunity to stand trial for inciting sectarian strife.Iraqi forces have repeatedly raided al-Dulaimi’s offices in a western Baghdad neighborhood over the past week, arresting 42 people linked to the politician after one of his security guards was discovered with a key to an explosives-laden car.The detained, who included al-Dulaimi’s son, are under criminal investigation, but the chief military spokesman, Brig. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi, said the politician himself was not under suspicion.Al-Dulaimi is the leader of the Iraqi Accordance Front, a three-party alliance with 44 seats in parliament, and he has been a harsh critic of al-Maliki, a Shiite. The Front’s six Cabinet ministers have pulled out of the government to protest the prime minister’s policies.The quarrel began when Bahaa al-Aaraji, a follower of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, told the 275-seat house that he had evidence that al-Dulaimi branded Shiites “heretics” whose killing is legitimate.Al-Aaraji said the evidence was in documents he held while addressing parliament, but declined to divulge their contents when he later spoke to reporters.”Everything he said is nothing but lies,” al-Dulaimi told reporters outside the chamber. “I am a well-known and a peaceful personality and I don’t incite the killing of Shiites, Kurds or Sunnis. I dare anyone to prove otherwise.”Sunni-Shiite tensions soared after the bombing in February 2006 of a major Shiite shrine north of Baghdad. The bombing, blamed on Sunni militants, unleashed a wave of sectarian killings that has claimed tens of thousands of lives.U.S. officials had hoped that approval of the benchmark laws would help bridge the sectarian gap.American officials began talking about benchmarks last year as a way to press the al-Maliki government to show tangible achievements in a bid to deflect calls in Congress for setting a timetable to withdraw U.S. forces.Congress set 18 benchmarks and directed President Bush to provide progress reports in July and September as a condition for supporting the increasingly unpopular U.S. mission here.The Iraqis have received mixed reviews in both reports, and the Americans have shifted their focus to supporting Sunnis at a grass-roots level as many tribal leaders and residents have joined forces against extremists, lowering the number of attacks to levels not seen since January 2006.”We are trying to still push very hard the political leadership on these issues of defining what it means to be an Iraqi, what a future Iraq will look like, how they’re going to relate to each other,” said a senior U.S. official in Baghdad.But the official said the U.S. was “approaching it very much at a ground level of how do people in communities at the local level accommodate the fact that this country has been so devastated by the sectarian and ethnic violence and rivalries of the last two years.”The official briefed reporters on condition his name not be published because the sensitivity of one government commenting on another.While the violence has declined, American commanders have warned extremists on both sides of the sectarian divide still pose a serious threat.Gen. David Petraeus told Gates, who was visiting, that violence has declined 60 percent in the last six months. But Petraeus acknowledged that significant problem areas remain, including northern Iraq where some al-Qaida activity is on the rise.Petraeus, who is scheduled to give Congress an update next March on progress in Iraq and map out some plans for U.S. force levels down the road, refused to offer too much optimism.”Nobody says anything about turning a corner, seeing lights at the end of tunnels, any of those other phrases,” said Petraeus. “You just keep your head down and keep moving.”—Associated Press writers Qassim Abdul-Zahra and Lolita Baldor contributed to this story from Baghdad.