BAGHDAD Iraq's parliament convened on Monday for the first time since a March election, cloaked by heavy security a day after gunmen and suicide bombers raided the central bank in a sign of continued lawlessness and instability.
The inaugural parliamentary session more than three months after the March 7 vote was a major step toward the establishment of a government but it appeared likely it would still take weeks for politicians to agree on a prime minister and other posts.
The newly elected lawmakers met for barely 20 minutes to take their oaths of office before dispersing to continue talks.
"Today is when the serious negotiations start to form the government and other institutions," said Kurdish lawmaker Fouad Masoum, one of the chamber's oldest members who was picked to open the session.
The 325-member parliament will be tasked with drafting legislation on a slew of issues as Iraq tries to move beyond the sectarian violence unleashed after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion and set off on a path of economic development.
The delay in calling parliament and in forming a government has fed sectarian tensions that suspected Sunni Islamist insurgents have sought to exploit through bombings and murders.
The number of civilians killed each month since March has increased slowly but steadily, raising questions about whether the U.S. government can stick to its plan to end combat operations in August ahead of a full withdrawal in 2011.
Recent weeks have also seen a spate of raids on banks and gold markets blamed by the authorities on insurgents seeking funds. But Shi'ite militia groups that took up arms after the invasion have also turned to crime as sectarian warfare fades.
Suicide bombers and gunmen on Sunday stormed the central bank, killing 18 people. They did not gain access to the vaults where Iraqi dinars and U.S. dollars are stored, but fought a 1-1/2 hour gunbattle with security forces.
SUNNI-BACKED ELECTION WINNER
A cross-sectarian alliance led by former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi won the most seats in the election after gaining strong backing from Iraq's once dominant Sunni minority, but it fell far short of a governing majority.
Allawi has warned that the sectarian bloodshed which peaked in 2006-2007 could be reignited if his Iraqiya alliance is denied the right to try to form the next government.
But Iraqiya is likely to be sidelined by a fusion of the main Shi'ite-led factions, one headed by incumbent Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and the other by groups close to Iran, including fiery anti-U.S. cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's movement.
"Although Allawi does not command the loyalty of all the country's Sunnis, there is a danger that violence will flare up if Iraqiya's victory is perceived as having been 'stolen' by the Shia parties," said IHS Global Insight analyst Gala Riani.
Maliki's ambitions to be reappointed as prime minister are opposed by Sadr's followers.
Nevertheless, lawmaker Abbas al-Bayati of Maliki's State of Law said the main stumbling block to a government was Iraqiya's insistence on its right to form one despite the merger of the Shi'ite groups in the National Alliance.
"If Iraqiya accepted that the National Alliance as the biggest bloc had the right to form the government, all the other issues would be resolved," Bayati said.
Iraqiya member Adnan al-Danbous criticized the National Alliance for seeking in his view to usurp Iraqiya's constitutional rights as the election winner.
"I can't see any explanation for why they insist on derailing the course of democracy in a country which is desperate to see the principles of democracy set root," he said.
Emerging from decades of war and sanctions, Iraq desperately needs stability to restore basic services and economic growth on the back of multi-billion-dollar oil deals. Needed legislation, including laws on the oil sector, have languished for years.
(Additional reporting by Muhanad Mohammed and Matt Robinson; Writing by Michael Christie; Editing by Janet Lawrence)