Saturday January 22nd, 2022 12:05AM

Iraq's new parliament holds 1st session marked by disarray

By The Associated Press
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BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraq’s new parliament reelected its speaker for a second term Sunday, the first step toward forming a new government after a general election whose results have been contested by powerful Iran-backed factions.

In a reflection of tensions, the meeting was marked by disarray, with the eldest member of Parliament who was leading the session being evacuated to the hospital apparently due to the stress.

The chaotic meeting ushers in what is likely to be a lengthy period of political wrangling among rival groups to choose a new president and prime minister. As leader of the biggest bloc, Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr — a maverick leader remembered for leading an insurgency against U.S. forces after the 2003 invasion — has the upper hand in forming a new government. But he will have to manage tensions with rival Shiite groups who continue to reject the election results and are demanding to have a say in the government formation process.

According to Iraq’s constitution, the largest bloc in Parliament has the right to choose the new prime minister. But as the meeting got underway Sunday, a coalition known as the Shiite Coordination Framework, an alliance of Shiite factions which object to the vote results, submitted a list of lawmakers' names it claimed now hold the biggest parliamentary bloc with 88 seats, rather than al-Sadr.

Chaos erupted briefly in the chamber, during which lawmakers crowded around Mahmood al-Mashhadani, who was leading the session. Within minutes, the 73-year-old lawmaker was carried out of the room by security forces and bundled in an ambulance that took him to hospital, where he was visited by some of the heads of political and militia factions. The lawmaker appeared to be in good condition, according to witnesses who later saw him there.

Following the disruption, the parliament session resumed, although the issue of the majority was not immediately resolved.

Later, 200 lawmakers picked incumbent Parliament Speaker Mohamed al-Halbousi for a second term, while 14 voted for al-Mashhadani.

Al-Halbousi, whose Sunni party came in second with 37 seats, is the former governor of Anbar province and was supported by al-Sadr, Kurdish and Sunni groups.

Earlier Sunday, lawmakers from al-Sadr’s bloc arrived early to the parliament building in Baghdad, donning white shrouds Muslims use to wrap their dead in a sign of their willingness to die for him. Al-Sadr, one of Iraq’s most influential political leaders, was the biggest winner in the Oct. 10 vote, securing 73 out of Parliament’s 329 seats.

Pro-Iran factions that alleged voter fraud lost around two-thirds of their seats — a significant blow. Supporters of armed groups pitched tents and staged a sit-in around the capital's so-called Green Zone, which houses the Iraqi government and many foreign diplomatic missions, for more than two months, while they appealed Iraq’s top court.

Tensions culminated in November with an assassination attempt with armed drones against Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi's residence — an attack blamed on Iran-aligned groups. The premier was unharmed.

The Court rejected the appeal filed by Iran-backed factions and ratified the election results late last month, clearing the way for a government to be formed.

Lawmakers at Sunday's session are expected to elect a parliamentary speaker and two deputies. Parliament will then have to elect a new president, who in turn will have 15 days to appoint a prime minister nominated by the largest bloc to form a new government.

Under an unofficial agreement dating back to the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, Iraq’s presidency — a largely ceremonial role — is held by a Kurd, while the prime minister is Shiite and the parliament speaker is Sunni.

The election was held months ahead of schedule in response to mass protests in late 2019, which saw tens of thousands in Baghdad and predominantly Shiite southern provinces rally against endemic corruption, poor services and unemployment. They also protested against the heavy-handed interference of neighboring Iran in Iraq’s affairs through Iran-backed militias.

Independent candidates drawn from the October 2019 protest movement who ran under the Imtidad list won nine seats. Some of them arrived to the parliament building riding a tuk tuk from Tahrir square, the epicenter of the protest movement. The colorful three-wheeled motorcycle vehicles ferried demonstrators back and forth from the square and became a symbol of the protest movement.

Hamzeh Hadad, a political analyst, said the makeup of the new parliament could help make elected officials more accountable to the public due to the new smaller electoral districts.

“With many independents and new political parties elected like Imtidad Movement, we could see a true opposition formed in parliament for the first time,” he said. “This is what Iraqis will be hoping to see from the new legislature."

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