BAGHDAD, Iraq – Iraq puts its fragile democracy to the test Wednesday, convening its first freely elected National Assembly in recent history after last-minute bargaining over Sunni Arab candidates to head the parliament. Car bombings killed five Iraqi civilians and one American soldier.
Meanwhile, the U.S.-led coalition came under pressure as Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi (search) on Tuesday announced plans to withdraw the country's 3,000 troops as the Iraqis slowly take control, a move that could complicate efforts to keep the peace.
Shiite Muslim officials said they failed to reach final agreement in talks with the Kurds — who are mostly Sunni Muslim but secular — and the Sunni Arabs. But those failures were not enough to prevent the 275-member National Assembly from preparing to meet Wednesday for the first time since the Jan. 30 elections.
"It will be a historic event because the Iraqi people will witness an elected parliament for the first time in their lives," said Ali al-Dabagh, a member of the Shiite clergy-dominated United Iraqi Alliance (search), which won the most seats in the elections.
Al-Dabagh added that Shiite, Kurdish and Sunni Arab politicians would meet after the deputies are sworn in "to finalize things. We need two to three days to announce an agreement."
The Shiite alliance won 140 seats in the National Assembly, but needs the Kurds' 75 seats to assemble the two-thirds majority required to elect a president, who will then nominate the prime minister.
The assembly was to start with speeches from members of the interim government, followed by political party leaders and end with a swearing-in ceremony, officials said, adding that the parliament could meet over a number of days.
Shiite talks with Sunni Arabs focused on naming a parliament speaker, and it remained unclear if they would present a candidate Wednesday. Although the speaker's role is mostly restricted to presiding over the assembly and moderating discussions, the job has a great deal of visibility.
Sunni Arabs are believed to make up the core of the insurgency, and including them in the political process is seen as a way to isolate the militants.
U.S. Gen. Richard Myers (search), chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, predicted to reporters traveling with him on a swing through Iraq that insurgent violence would surge in the weeks ahead as the National Assembly is convened and the government takes shape.
"So there's a long way to go," Myers said, before Iraq is stable enough to defend itself without the presence of U.S. troops, which now number about 148,000. He declined to say when a U.S. withdrawal might begin.
Berlusconi's remarks represented the first time a country has connected a troop withdrawal to the ability of Iraqis to take control over their security.
"Starting with the month of September, we would like to proceed with a gradual reduction of our soldiers," Berlusconi said on a state TV talk show that lasted into early Wednesday.
Withdrawing Italian troops "will depend on the capability of the Iraqi government to equip itself with adequate police and security forces" to establish "acceptable" security levels, the premier said.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan responded: "We certainly appreciate the contributions of the Italians. They have served and sacrificed alongside Iraqis and alongside other coalition forces."
To prevent car bomb attacks against new Iraq's lawmakers, authorities stepped up security around the heavily fortified Green Zone, where the National Assembly was to meet. Two bridges leading to the zone were shut down, and roadblocks were erected on other streets leading to the area.
An insurgent car bomb attack near Baghdad airport, where Myers had met U.S. troops, killed a U.S. soldier and wounded another six, the military said.
Although it was unclear if it was the same attack, Iraqi police said a car bomb in the same area — and at the same time — targeted a U.S. military convoy and killed four civilians and wounded another seven. When U.S. forces arrived to evacuate the injured, another car bomb exploded, wounding more troops. One Humvee was destroyed and two civilian cars were in flames, witnesses said.
A U.S. military spokesman said he was checking into that report.
The United Iraqi Alliance and a Kurdish coalition agreed last week to form a coalition government with Shiite politician Ibrahim al-Jaafari as prime minister. In return, Jalal Talabani will become Iraq's first Kurdish president, though the presidency is a largely ceremonial post.
"The Kurds want to make some amendments on the deal, and we are going to finish soon, Thursday to be exact. We do not want to impose any name from our side regarding the post of the parliament speaker. We want the Sunnis to nominate some persons for this post, but till now they have not done this," al-Dabagh said.
Sunni Arab negotiators at Tuesday's meeting included interim President Ghazi al-Yawer — a possible choice for parliament speaker — the Iraqi Islamic Party and Iraqi nationalist leader Adnan Pachachi.
Sunni Arabs, who make up only about 20 percent of the population but were the dominant group under Saddam Hussein's regime, largely stayed away from the elections — either to honor a boycott call or because they feared being attacked at the polls by insurgents.
In other violence announced Tuesday:
— A car bomb exploded in northeastern Baghdad, killing a child and wounding at least four people, including a police officer, police Col. Muhanad Sadoun said. The bomber was trying to hit a patrol of traffic police but crashed into a tree, Sadoun said.
— In Mosul, the U.S. military said six insurgents were killed and four were injured Monday in clashes with U.S. and Iraqi forces.
— A U.S. Marine with the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force died Monday in Anbar, a troubled province that has been a hotbed of guerrilla activity and includes the cities of Fallujah, Ramadi and Qaim, officials said. At least 1,516 members of the U.S. military have died since the beginning of the Iraq war in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.
— In northern Iraq, insurgents blew up an oil pipeline connecting the Kirkuk fields with a refinery in Beiji, 155 miles north of Baghdad, an official in the Northern Oil Co. said. The pipeline is used only for domestic deliveries, the official said on condition of anonymity. He did not have details on the extent of the damage.