Iraqi Parliament Begins Key Session in Green Zone

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BAGHDAD - Iraqi lawmakers convened their fall session Tuesday, facing decisions on key issues like provincial elections, oil regulation and a security deal with the U.S., seen as vital for transforming improved security into a lasting peace.

American critics have long complained that Iraqi leaders and politicians have failed to seize the opportunity created by a reduction in violence this year to reach power-sharing agreements among the rival Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish communities.

Several of the bills before parliament are seen as crucial to reconciliation between the factions. U.S. officials hope that provincial elections in particular will encourage political participation by disaffected Sunni Arabs and make local administrations more responsive to the public.

The session got off to a slow start. Parliament speaker Mahmoud al-Mashhadani opened it two hours late because not enough members were there for a quorum by the announced start time. The session began with 160 of 275 legislators and adjourned about an hour later.

Much criticism has been heaped on the parliament, an unwieldy institution which often fails to muster a quorum and puts off decisions.

In his opening remarks, al-Mashhadani called for streamlining the decision-making process, acknowledging that the assembly had "shortcomings in the practice of democracy" and lacked "a spirit of accordance."

He asked leaders of the major parliament blocs to attend a meeting Wednesday on the election bill, which failed to win approval last month because of Kurdish objections to a power-sharing arrangement for oil-rich Kirkuk, which they want to incorporate to their self-ruled northern region.

Besides the bill on elections, lawmakers must also tackle legislation to regulate the oil industry, and they will have to ratify a still-unfinished security pact governing the status of American troops in the country starting next year. U.S. and Iraqi negotiators have been working on the pact for months, but the talks have bogged down over a schedule for a U.S. withdrawal and legal jurisdiction over American military members.

Tuesday's session was held in Baghdad Convention Center inside the U.S.-protected Green Zone, despite an announcement last June that the fall session would be held in the former National Assembly building outside the zone for the first time since the legislature was elected in January 2005.

The decision to move to the new location was hailed as a sign of improved security and an affirmation of independence from the U.S.-led coalition. But security measures to protect the assembly building were not completed ahead of the fall opening.

Although security has improved dramatically since last year's U.S. troop-buildup in Iraq, American commanders warn that the gains are reversible without political progress. Sunni and Shiite militants have been battered but not defeated, they say.

As a sign of continuing instability, a bomb concealed in a push cart exploded Tuesday at a checkpoint near Tarmiyah north of Baghdad, killing a policeman and two members of a Sunni security group that has turned against al-Qaida.

In Baghdad, a bomb was discovered Tuesday on a car owned by the Al-Arabiya television network, in what appeared to have been an assassination attempt against its chief correspondent, station employees said.

The driver and a security guard discovered the device as they waited to pick up correspondent Juwad al-Hattab at his home in the central Baghdad district of Salhiya, station executive editor Nabil Khatib said.

Khatib said the bomb, about the size of a laptop computer, was hidden under the front seat on the passenger side. Police were called but the bomb exploded before they arrived, heavily damaging the car but causing no injuries, he said.

"It appears that it was timed to explode while al-Hattab was driving to the office," Khatib said. "We understand it as an attempt on his life and as an attack against the station."

No group claimed responsibility for the bomb, but Al-Arabiya correspondent Majid Hameed said the staff had received threats both directly and on Arabic language Web sites. Some hard-line Islamists consider Al-Arabiya too pro-Western in its views.

Another bomb exploded Tuesday near the home of an Iraqi major general in west Baghdad, injuring him and two civilians, police said.