Speaker threatens to disband Iraq parliament; lawmakers snarled over budget, provincial powers

Eds: AMs.

By QASSIM ABDUL-ZAHRA

Associated Press Writer

BAGHDAD (AP) -- The speaker of Iraq's fragmented parliament threatened Tuesday to disband the legislature, saying it is so riddled with distrust it appears unable to adopt the budget or agree on a law setting a date for provincial elections.

Disbanding parliament would prompt new elections within 60 days and further undermine Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's shaky government, which is limping along with nearly half of the 40 Cabinet posts vacant.

The disarray undermines the purpose of last year's U.S. troop "surge" -- to bring down violence enough to allow the Iraqi government and parliament to focus on measures to reconcile differences among minority Sunnis and Kurds and the majority Shiites. Violence is down dramatically, but political progress languishes.

Iraq's constitution allows Mahmoud al-Mashhadani, the hot-tempered speaker and a member of the minority Sunni faction, to dissolve parliament if one-third of its members request the move and a majority of lawmakers approve. Al-Mashhadani said he already had sufficient backing for the move from five political blocs, but he refused to name them.

Al-Mashhadani said the Iraqi treasury had already lost $3 billion by failing to pass the budget before the end of 2007. He did not explain how the money was lost.

He blamed the lack of a budget on Kurdish politicians who have refused to back down from a demand that their regional and semiautonomous government be guaranteed 17 percent of national income.

The 17 percent formula for Kurds was applied to past budgets, but some Sunni and Shiite lawmakers sought to lower it to about 14 percent. The argument is that the Kurdish population is closer to 14 percent of Iraq's total than 17 percent as Kurds insist. There has been no census in decades.

Shiite lawmakers walked out of the rare night session Tuesday when the Kurds refused to drop their demand to lump the budget vote together with two other contested measures. The Kurds said they feared being double-crossed on the budget, which now calls for restoration of the 17 percent Kurdish share, if parliamentarians voted on the laws separately.

"We believe the crisis of trust continues to grow and will affect the work of government. We have to admit now that the political process has failed and call for the disbanding of parliament and early elections," Sadrist lawmaker Bahaa al-Araji said after the fractious session.

Earlier in the day, radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's office condemned the kidnapping of two CBS journalists in the southern city of Basra, while Iraqi police said an intensive search was under way for the men.

Separately, a 27-year-old Iraqi journalist who disappeared after leaving his offices two days ago to buy some supplies was found shot to death Tuesday in central Baghdad.

Iraqi police and witnesses said the kidnapping in Basra took place Sunday morning when about eight masked gunmen wielding machine guns stormed the Sultan Palace Hotel and seized a British reporter and his Iraqi interpreter.

CBS News said Monday that two journalists working for it were missing in Basra, but it did not identify them.

Basra, Iraq's second-largest city, has seen fierce fighting between rival Shiite militias as part of a power struggle in the oil-rich south.

The Sadrists were quick to distance themselves from the disappearance of the journalists.

"We condemn the kidnappings of journalists, and we demand the release of the British journalist and the Iraqi interpreter," Harith al-Edhari, a director of al-Sadr's office in Basra, told reporters.

An official in the Basra security operations room, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of security concerns, said authorities had launched an intensive search and had arrested a man suspected of involvement in the kidnapping.

CBS said all efforts were under way to find the journalists and requested "that others do not speculate on the identities of those involved" until more information was available.

Kidnappings of Westerners and Iraqis -- for political motives or ransom -- were common in the past but have become infrequent recently with a decline in violence.

Since 2004, three journalists -- Fakher Haider of The New York Times, as well as James Brandon of Britain and New York freelancer Steven Vincent -- have been abducted in Basra, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Brandon was released, but Vincent and Haider were murdered, it said.

According to CPJ, at least 51 journalists have been abducted in Iraq since 2004. The New York-based group said the majority was released, but 12 were killed.

"Iraq is the most dangerous country in the world for journalists and the deadliest conflict for the press in recent history," CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon said. "Journalists face incalculable risks in order to bring us the news about what is happening on the ground there."

CPJ also has recorded at least 126 journalists killed since the U.S.-led war started in March 2003, excluding the latest death.

Hisham Michwit Hamdan, 27, disappeared Sunday after he left the offices of the Young Journalists League to get notebooks and pens at a market in the central Baghdad district of Bab al-Mudham district, the league's chief said.

His bullet-riddled body was found Tuesday in central Baghdad, according to league chief, Haider al-Moussawi and police. Hamdan joined the independent organization when it was established in 2003 as a media watchdog and had not reported any threats, al-Moussawi added. He is survived by a wife and two children.