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Iraqi lawmakers choose parliament speaker

Nod to Sunni Muslim ends stalemate, but tough choices remain

BAGHDAD -- A US-educated Sunni Muslim was selected as parliament speaker yesterday, an important first step in the formation of a national unity government that follows two months of difficult negotiations.

Meanwhile, US military officials raised the number of American troops wounded in a large insurgent assault on the Abu Ghraib prison from 18 to 44.

Thirteen detainees were also injured. There was no confirmed claim of responsibility for Saturday's attack, which the military said was mounted by at least 40 men with car bombs, rockets, and guns.

The selection of Hajim al-Hassani as parliament speaker marked compromises by all sides in the new assembly. Shi'ite and Sunni Muslims both withdrew rival candidates, and Hassani gave up his hopes of a top Cabinet job to end an impasse over the position.

''The Iraqi people have been able to survive many attempts by their enemies to divide the people," Hassani told the assembly, adding that it was time for a ''free, democratic, federated, and pluralistic" future.

''The reason it took time to reach this first stage is because there's a difference between dictatorship and democracy," said Ibrahim al-Jaafari, who is expected to be named prime minister, the new government's most important post.

''Dictatorship takes a short time," Jaafari said. ''Democracy takes a longer time, because people need to negotiate with each other to get the best results."

''How long?" demanded a hand-lettered message on a sign held by a lone protester, who had managed to get through a mile-wide security cordon outside the site where the assembly was meeting.

With a speaker named, lawmakers say they hope to pick the country's leaders and a Cabinet within days. The haggling over posts has left politicians hurrying to meet a mid-August deadline to draft a new constitution.

A referendum on the new constitution and a vote for a new government are supposed to follow.

While Jaafari, a Shi'ite, is expected to be prime minister and Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, is expected to be president, questions remain on who will fill other important positions, including a vice presidency expected to go to a Sunni.

The control of ministries overseeing the billion-dollar oil industry and the security forces are among the jobs lawmakers say are still contested.

Some Kurdish politicians and others hope to bring a smaller, secular party into their coalition to help balance a feared religious tilt by Shi'ite lawmakers, who won the most seats in parliament.

The secular bloc, with 40 seats, is holding out for some of the top posts.

Lawmakers say they are determined to include Sunnis in the government in an effort to defuse the two-year-old Sunni-led insurgency.

Sunni clerics had issued a widely-heeded call to boycott the Jan. 30 elections.

Earlier attempts to select a speaker did not go smoothly, even though there was agreement that whoever would hold the office would be Sunni. Last week, an assembly session dissolved into a shouting match over the office. Video footage of the session was cut and lawmakers ejected journalists.

Yesterday, a Kurd, a Sunni, and a Shi'ite counted paper ballots aloud, and aides scrawled tallies on a whiteboard, ticking off votes that gave Hassani the speakership and a Shi'ite and a Kurd the deputy speakerships.

Hassani shook hands with the outgoing speaker of the US-backed interim government and took over the dais with a call for God's protection.

As relieved lawmakers talked to reporters minutes later, an explosion boomed nearby. Witnesses said a mortar shell hit just outside the Green Zone, site of the four assembly sessions so far, each of which has been punctuated by mortar blasts.

Hassani attended colleges in Nebraska and Connecticut and lived in Los Angeles until US-led forces routed Saddam Hussein's government in 2003. Hassani was industry minister in the interim government.

His Shi'ite deputy speaker, Hussain al-Shahristani, is a nuclear scientist who spent 12 years in solitary confinement during the Hussein reign.

''In the solitary cell, all my dreams were that one day I'd be free to look for the missing ones in the mass graves," he said, referring to the tens of thousands of people killed by Hussein's government.

''If we neglect our duties and fail . . . then the people will replace us with others," Hassani reminded lawmakers yesterday.

Meanwhile, the body of a Kurdish police officer was found yesterday in the northern city of Mosul, two days after he was kidnapped, a local official said. The man had been shot in the head and abdomen, a hospital said.

Bombings killed a US soldier yesterday in Tikrit, about 90 miles north of Baghdad, and a Marine on Saturday in Haditha, 125 miles northwest of Baghdad, the military said.

The US military also released details of an investigation that confirmed that a Bulgarian soldier was killed last month by friendly fire during a clash with US soldiers.

The investigation found that Gurdi Gurdev was fatally wounded in southern Iraq on March 4, when US and Bulgarian forces ''fired on each other in response to what each believed to be a hostile act from a legitimate military target," according to a statement released by the US military.

Information from the Associated Press was included in this report.

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