BAGHDAD - Iraqi legislators suspended parliamentary sessions yesterday for the rest of the month to mark the Muslim religious season - the end of much-delayed efforts to pass US-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 Ba'ath 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 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 Shi'ite-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.
Before the legislature adjourned, a shouting match erupted when a Shi'ite lawmaker accused a powerful Sunni Arab politician of harboring sectarian sentiments against Iraq's Shi'ite majority.
The public outburst could renew calls by Shi'ite 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 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 Dulaimi's son, are under criminal investigation, but the chief military spokesman, Brigadier General Qassim al-Moussawi, said the politician himself was not under suspicion.
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 Maliki, a Shi'ite.
The Front's six Cabinet ministers have pulled out of the government to protest Maliki's policies.
US 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 Maliki government to show tangible achievements in a bid to deflect calls in Congress for setting a timetable to withdraw US forces.