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Moderates Try to Break Iraq's Sectarian Logjam

With the parliament and the Cabinet barely able to function, some senior political figures in Iraq's government have begun reaching out to try to address a long-stagnating list of legislation seen as crucial to the country's future.

A moderate group of four parties, two Shiite and two Kurdish, appear to be close to an agreement to work together on the legislation, party representatives say, and they are hoping to persuade the most moderate of the Sunni Arab parties, the Iraqi Islamic Party, to join them.

In a sign of movement on the Sunni side, the main Sunni Arab bloc in parliament elected Ayad al-Sammarai, a moderate from the Iraqi Islamic Party, as its new leader, replacing Adnan Dulaimi, a more hard-line figure.

However, the obstacles are formidable. Thirteen ministers from the 38-member Cabinet are no longer attending Cabinet meetings. There has been little progress on benchmark legislation, including oil revenue-sharing and a law to set a date for provincial elections. Seventy-four members of parliament are boycotting the 275-member body, which, when combined with the members who rarely attend anyway, means that the parliament often lacks a quorum and cannot conduct any official business.

More important than sheer numbers, however, is that even though one Sunni Arab party is considering compromise, the larger main bloc, Tawafiq, is still refusing to participate. Although the parliament can pass legislation without the bloc, it would be a hollow exercise, because the whole point of the bills now under consideration is to try to heal differences between the Sunni Arab minority and the Shiite majority.

Lobby Weakens Rules To Protect Some Wetlands

After a concerted lobbying effort by property developers, mine owners and farm groups, the Bush administration scaled back proposed guidelines for enforcing a key Supreme Court ruling governing protected wetlands and streams.

The administration last fall prepared broad new rules for interpreting the decision, handed down by a divided Supreme Court in June 2006, that could have brought thousands of small streams and wetlands under the protection of the Clean Water Act. The draft guidelines, for example, would allow the government to protect marsh lands and temporary ponds that form during heavy rains if they could potentially affect water quality in a nearby navigable waterway.

But just before the new guidelines were to be issued last September, they were pulled back in the face of objections from lobbyists and lawyers for groups concerned that the rules could lead to federal protection of isolated and insignificant swamps, potholes and ditches.

The Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers, charged with enforcing the Clean Water Act, finally issued new guidelines last month, which environmental and recreational groups complained were much more narrowly drawn. These groups argue that the final guidelines will leave thousands of sensitive wetlands and streams unprotected.