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Iraq's parliament Smiles belie sectarian strife

Written by: Staff
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BAGHDAD, Mar 16 (Reuters) Handshakes, smiles and promises masked sectarian tensions as postwar Iraq's first full-term parliament opened today.

Iraqi leaders in business suits, chequered headdresses and black veils sitting side by side projected an image of unity in a country where many fear those outfits could soon distinguish one sect from another in open civil war.

It didn't take long for a few conciliatory phrases to remind Iraqis of the apparent victims of sectarian fury dumped on the streets -- more than 100 bodies have been found in Baghdad alone since Monday.

Adnan Pachachi, the distinguished, white-haired elder statesman of Iraqi politics, made an obvious request at the podium which has fallen on many deaf ears -- end sectarian politics.

But his call for unity was swiftly cut off by one of the most powerful men in Iraq, Shi'ite leader Abdul Aziz al-Hakim of SCIRI, a ruling party accused of sanctioning death squads against Sunni Arabs.

SCIRI strongly denies the accusations in a land where denials are abundant.

TIRED Shi'ite Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari found himself explaining the interruption to journalists who have grown tired of assertions that Iraqi leaders are united.

Among the officials gathered at parliament were Kurdish leaders and long-time rivals Jalal Talabani and Masoud Barzani, former guerrilla leaders who took on Saddam Hussein.

Their Kurdish region in the north has been stable compared to the carnage in other parts of Iraq.

But Kurdish leaders who have maintained a safe distance from sectarian bloodshed received embarrassing news from their haven in the north today Kurds stormed and destroyed a memorial to the 1988 Halabja gas attack during 18th anniversary ceremonies.

One person was killed and eight wounded when Kurdish forces opened fire on the protesters who were complaining about a lack of funding for local services in the town.

But in Baghdad, the television lights focused on Iraqi leaders after the parliament session in the heavily-fortified Green Zone that separates them from the bloody chaos outside.

It has become a ritual after previous marathon talks on the constitution and other combustible issues were held in the sprawling building where Saddam's Baath party officials once made long-winded speeches about a country they united with an iron fist.

Politicians answered questions on sectarian troubles, divisions in their own parties and the widely held belief that neighbouring countries have designs on Iraq.

There were also vows that a government would soon be formed -- three months after elections.

At the end of the day, the opening session was reduced to 20 minutes of protocol that satisfied a constitutional deadline and Iraqi politicians were back to the reality beyond the blast walls -- suicide bombings, shootings and kidnapping.

REUTERS SY RN1857

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