Iraq's new parliament convened for just under 20 minutes Monday in what was little more than a symbolic inaugural session because of unresolved differences over key government positions - a precarious political limbo three months after inconclusive elections.
The sides are sharply divided over the formation of a new government, and analysts and some lawmakers have warned that a decision could still be months away. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is battling to keep his job after the rival Sunni-backed Iraqiya list narrowly won the most seats in the March 7 balloting. In parliament, al-Maliki watched as his chief rival, Ayad Allawi, who heads the Iraqiya bloc, and other lawmakers stood to take the oath of office in Arabic and Kurdish. The other half of the session was taken up by the singing of the national anthem and readings from the Quran.
Under Iraq's constitution, the legislature should have chosen a parliament speaker and a president, but these appointments had to be put off because they are part of the negotiations between major political blocs over the rest of the new leadership _ including a prime minister and top Cabinet officials.
Acting speaker, Fouad Massoum, adjourned the session after about 20 minutes, saying the parties needed more time to discuss the issue.
He said the session would be left open, a technicality aimed at allowing negotiations to continue beyond the 30-day deadline set in the constitution. No date was set for the next meeting. The session began amid heightened security, a day after insurgents stormed the country's central bank in a coordinated attack that left more than 20 people dead.
Persistent violence has raised fears that al-Qaida in Iraq and other insurgents are trying to exploit the political deadlock to foment unrest and derail security gains as the U.S. military prepares to withdraw by the end of next year.
U.N. envoy to Iraq Ad Melkert said it could take anywhere from two weeks to three months for the parliament to meet again but the fact that parliament was seated put pressure on the factions to reach agreement.
"This is an invitation by the newly elected parliament to make sure as soon as possible they can start to function effectively," he said.
Al-Maliki's State of Law coalition, which won 89 seats to come in second place behind Allawi's Iraqiya list, has joined forces with a religiously devout Shiite alliance to form an Iranian-backed bloc called the National Alliance.
Iraqiya leaders have claimed they should have the first crack at forming the government because they won the most seats on election day. But a March court opinion opened the door to the possibility that the largest bloc could be one created after the election through negotiations _ meaning that if the super-Shiite coalition holds together, it could have the right to form the government. Massoum confirmed the National Alliance as an entity, but said it was up to the Federal Court to make a decision on the formation of the government.
The Shiite bloc insisted it should be the one to choose a prime ministerial candidate, who would then have to be approved by the president.
"Today lawmakers have completed their membership and we are the biggest parliamentary bloc," said Khalid al-Attiyah, a National Alliance lawmaker.
Iraqiya lawmakers quickly dug their heels in, saying the coalition would not accept the National Alliance's self-coronation as it had no legal or moral authority do so.
"We think that their announcement lacks a lot of legal regulations, and it is just for media and not legally binding for Iraqiya to go with it or accept it," said Osama al-Nujaifi, a senior Sunni Iraqiya lawmaker.
Christopher Hill, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, said ultimately "this will get down to some real hardball politics." He declined to speculate how long it might be before parliament meets again, adding: "I don't think anybody has a solution yet as to how to square the circle of the positions that need to be decided." The political jockeying was taking place amid fears that Sunnis who supported Allawi, a secular Shiite, could turn to violence if they feel disenfranchised. Much of the violence that broke out after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion was fueled by retaliatory attacks between Sunnis who lost the dominance they had under Saddam Hussein and Shiite extremists.
Iraqi security forces sealed off the area surrounding the central bank and nearby stores were closed Monday, a day after the assault on the bank.
Witnesses and Iraqi police and army officials at the scene said there were about six attackers wearing military uniforms. The bank's main entrance and the pavement were still stained with blood. Iraqi military spokesman Major General Qassim al-Moussawi has blamed the attack on al-Qaida in Iraq.
Gunmen pretending to have car trouble also killed three members of a government-backed Sunni militia in Balad, 50 miles north of Baghdad, according to police and hospital officials.