Sunni legislators end boycott of Iraqi parliament, future of oil law uncertain

1141.jpgSunni legislators returned to Iraq’s parliament Thursday after a five-week boycott, raising hopes the assembly can make progress on power-sharing bills demanded by Washington before the lawmakers take a month’s break.But the return of the Sunnis and a hardline Shiite faction loyal to anti-US cleric Moqtada Sadr could also signal problems for many of the bills, including the oil law, which is a top US priority.

The 44 members of the Iraqi Accordance Front attended Thursday’s parliament session after striking a deal with the Shiites and Kurds to reinstate the Sunni speaker, Mahmoud Mashhadani, who was ousted by the Shiite-dominated assembly last month for erratic behaviour.

Under a face-saving formula, Mashhadani is expected to resign after presiding over a few sessions. One official said Mashhadani was to step down Wednesday or parliament will force him out. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the information.

“We all have to work together to rescue Iraq from the catastrophe which has befallen it,” Sunni leader Adnan Duleimi told parliament. “This is the first step in solving the Iraqi problem and in stopping the bloodshed.” The Sunnis returned to the 275-member parliament two days after Sadr’s 30 lawmakers ended their boycott.

Prime Minister Nouri Maliki’s government accepted the Sadrists’ demands for rebuilding a Shiite shrine damaged by bombings.

The two boycotts had paralysed the legislature, which is under strong criticism from the Americans for failing to approve key legislation and for plans to take a month’s vacation in August at a time when US and Iraqi troops are fighting and dying on the battlefield.

The US command said five more US soldiers were killed — four of them and their Iraqi interpreter in a bombing Wednesday in east Baghdad and another by small arms fire Thursday near the village of Rushdi Mullah, southwest of the capital.

Both the Sunnis and the Sadr bloc are still refusing to attend Cabinet meetings. And it is also far from certain whether the return of those two factions means approval of major legislative benchmarks can be assured.

For example, several members of Sadr’s bloc have said they intend to oppose the current draft of the oil bill, which would regulate the country’s huge petroleum resources. Companion legislation would distribute oil revenues among all Iraqis, ensuring Sunnis a fair share for their oil-poor regions.

The Kurds also oppose the draft, saying it infringes on their constitutional right to a major role in managing fields and controlling revenues in their northern region.

Many Sunnis believe the bill gives too much power to regions.

Duleimi told the Associated Press the Sunnis had questions about the draft and he did not expect the bill to be debated until September.

That would cast doubt on whether final approval could come before mid-September, when US Ambassador Ryan Crocker and the US commander Gen. David Petraeus report to Congress on the state of progress towards national reconciliation.

During testimony Thursday to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Crocker warned lawmakers against relying heavily on a list of benchmarks to measure gains made in Iraq.

Speaking from Baghdad via a videolink, Crocker said progress in Iraq “cannot be analysed solely” in terms of benchmarks because they are not a reliable measure of “Iraqi attitudes toward each other and their willingness to work toward political reconciliation”. President George W. Bush ordered an additional 28,000 US troops to Iraq this year in a bid to restore security in Baghdad, allowing Iraqi political leaders time to forge power-sharing agreements.

The US has had some success in reducing the bloodshed in Baghdad and elsewhere.

But the No. 2 US commander here, Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno, told Pentagon reporters Thursday that it will be at least November before he can determine whether those improvements represent long-term trends.

The picture, so far, is mixed.

In Latifiyah, a flashpoint town 30 kilometres south of Baghdad, police found the body of an Iraqi police lieutenant colonel and seven other policemen two days after they were captured in a clash with insurgents, Capt. Muthanna Khalid of the Babil provincial police said.

To the north, American and Iraqi forces were continuing operations to clear Sunni extremists from the eastern part of Baqouba, 55 kilometres  north of Baghdad, the US said.

US troops regained control of the western half of the city last month and launched operations into the rest of Baqouba on Tuesday.

Since last month, the Americans said they have killed at least 67 Qaeda operatives in Baqouba, arrested 253, seized 63 weapons caches and have destroyed 151 roadside bombs.

In Baghdad, suspected Shiite gunmen blew up the minaret on a Sunni mosque in the city’s Jihad area, police said. The bodies of two men with bullets in their heads were found dumped near the mosque, police said.

In Mosul, gunmen firing from a speeding car killed a bodyguard of a Sunni lawmaker, police said. Elsewhere in the city, police said a Kurdish political party member was ambushed and killed.

All the police spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to release the information.

Also Thursday, the US military said two soldiers — Sgt. 1st Class Trey A. Corrales of San Antonio and Spc. Christopher P. Shore of Winder, Ga. — had been charged with premeditated murder in the death of an Iraqi last month in Kirkuk.

Their battalion commander — Lt. Col. Michael Browder — was relieved of command but has not been charged.

The charges were announced one day after a US marine was convicted of kidnapping and conspiracy to murder in the death of an Iraq last year in Hamdania. Cpl. Trent Thomas was acquitted of the most serious charge of premeditated murder during a trial at Camp Pendleton, California.

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