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Iraq elects new parliament speaker after 4-month impasse

Iraq’s parliament ended four months of legislative paralysis Sunday by electing a new speaker who supporters hope will bring both muscle and discipline to the notoriously disorderly body.

Iyad Samarrai, a leading figure in the Iraqi Islamic Party, was chosen to replace Mahmoud Mashadani, who resigned as speaker in December amid universal complaints about his erratic and abrasive style.

Samarrai, a mild-mannered Sunni Arab engineer who spent nearly a decade in exile in Britain, is likely to bring a more sober approach to running the legislature. But his appointment could also lead to power struggles between parliament and the Shiite-dominated government of Prime Minister Nouri Maliki. Under an unwritten agreement between the factions, the speaker’s post is filled by a Sunni.

For the last four months Samarrai has been unable to get the required majority in the 275-seat parliament because of concerns by some, including Maliki, that the Iraqi Islamic Party would use the position to challenge the prime minister’s power.

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Amid widespread speculation that the Sunni party was preparing a no-confidence vote to remove Maliki, in collaboration with its allies among the Kurds and the Shiite Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, the prime minister had blocked Samarrai’s election for months.

Legislators said the impasse was broken after Maliki received assurances that the Iraqi Islamic Party would not seek to challenge his rule. Samarrai won with 153 votes of the 232 ballots cast.

Addressing journalists after the vote, Samarrai, 63, pledged to strengthen parliament’s oversight of government activities. But he also said the legislature “should in no way be subjected to political motives, or used to make gains by any political bloc.”

Salim Abdullah Jabouri, a spokesman for the Iraqi Accordance Front, which includes the Iraqi Islamic Party, said that with nationwide elections due at the end of the year, there was not enough time to organize a no-confidence vote.

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“Parliament will check the government, not topple the government, because lately the parliament had become a tool in the hands of the government,” he said.

The appointment of Samarrai was nonetheless a setback for Maliki, whose political fortunes soared after he scored big in provincial elections this year, said Izzat Shahbandar, a legislator with the secular Iraqi National List group.

“This is a strong challenge to the prime minister because he didn’t want this party to take the office,” he said. “It shows that the prime minister derives his power from the people, not from parliament.”

The deadlock had delayed the passage of many key pieces of legislation, including the 2009 budget and the much-anticipated oil law, which has been dragging through parliament for years.

Ali Allaq, a legislator with Maliki’s Islamic Dawa Party, said he hoped that parliament would turn its attention to the business of passing laws “in a balanced way.” But, he warned, challenges to the prime minister’s powers could backfire.

“Any attempt to destabilize his position will destabilize the entire political process,” Allaq said. “All the political factions know that Maliki’s position is unassailable.”

In a reminder that Baghdad remains unstable, two mortar rounds hit a U.S. military base in east Baghdad late Sunday, police said. There was no word of casualties. Earlier, seven people, including two goldsmiths, were killed in an armed robbery in west Baghdad.

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lsly@tribune.com

Times staff writers Usama Redha and Caesar Ahmed contributed to this report.


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