BAGHDAD (Reuters) - 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 new 325-member parliament will be tasked with drafting legislation on a slew of economic issues as the country tries to move beyond the sectarian violence unleashed after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion and set off on a path of economic development.
“On behalf of the Iraqi people we open the first session of parliament,” said re-elected Kurdish lawmaker Fouad Masoum, one of the chamber’s oldest members and picked to open the session.
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 political factions to agree on a choice of prime minister.
Sunni Islamist insurgents have sought to exploit the sectarian tensions generated by the extended political vacuum through bombings and assassinations.
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.
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.
Suicide bombers and gunmen on Sunday stormed the heavily-guarded central bank in Baghdad, killing 15 people and wounding dozens. They did not gain access to the vaults where piles of Iraqi dinars and U.S. dollars are stored, but fought an hour-and-a-half-long gunbattle with Iraqi security forces.
SUNNI-BACKED ELECTION WINNER
A cross-sectarian alliance led by former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi won the most seats in the March election after gaining strong backing from Iraq’s once dominant Sunni minority, but it fell far short of a governing majority.
That has led to weeks of political wrangling as political groups sought to build coalitions that would give them the clout needed to pick the next government.
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.
Maliki’s ambitions to be reappointed as prime minister are opposed by Sadr’s followers.
Masoum said parliament was supposed to pick a speaker on Monday but political parties needed more time for consultation. Politicians said it would take several days to reach consensus.
Emerging from decades of war, sanctions and isolation, Iraq desperately needs stability to restore basic services and foster economic growth on the back of multibillion-dollar oil deals. Much-needed legislation, including laws on the oil sector, have languished in draft form for years.
Additional reporting by Muhanad Mohammed; Writing by Michael Christie; Editing by Samia Nakhoul