BAGHDAD, Iraq – Iraq's first freely elected parliament in half a century began its opening session Wednesday after a series of explosions targeted the gathering. President Bush (search) called the session a "bright moment" for Iraq, but added there was no timetable for withdrawing U.S. troops.
The parliament's 275 members, elected during Jan. 30 balloting, convened in an auditorium amid tight security in the heavily guarded Green Zone (search) with U.S. helicopter gunships hovering overhead.
The lawmakers opened the televised meeting with a reading of verses from the Quran (search).
The new legislators wore flowing Arab robes trimmed in gold, black turbans of the Shiite clergy and dark Western business suits. Nearly all the 85 women present wore headscarves.
Standing on a stage adorned with Iraqi flags and bouquets of red and white flowers, Iraqi Chief Justice Medhat al Mahmoud (search) administered the oath to the assembled deputies.
The lawmakers held a copy of the oath in their hands as they swore:
"In the name of God, I swear to carry out my duties and legal responsibilities diligently. I swear to protect the sovereignty of Iraq and the interests of its people and to protects its land and air, its natural resources and its federal democratic system. I also swear to protect public and private liberties and the independence of the judiciary system and to carry out the country's laws, so help me God."
In Washington, Bush congratulated the new legislators, saying, "We've always said this is a process and today was a step in that process. It's a hopeful moment."
Kurdish delegate Fuad Masoum called it "a great day in Iraqi history."
"This day coincides with a painful memory that has many meanings. ... Today, on this occasion, we celebrate the inauguration of parliament after the fall of this regime," he said.
Wednesday marked the anniversary of the Saddam Hussein-ordered chemical attack in 1988 on the northern Kurdish town of Halabja, an attack that killed 5,000 people.
Iraqi leaders have not yet agreed on a coalition government, and the leader of the Shiite-dominated United Iraqi Alliance, cleric Abdel Aziz al-Hakim, said his alliance hoped to "form a government whose motto is to serve the Iraqi people, a government of national unity and reconciliation."
"A government that can root out violence and set a trial for Saddam and the elements of his regime," Hakim said in a speech that wove in and out of prayer. He said a government led by the alliance would also try "to achieve the independence of Iraq and put an end to the role of multinational forces in Iraq."
Jalal Talabani, the Kurdish leader who will probably become Iraq's next president, said deputies "all have a duty to achieve real national unity."
"Iraq is facing tough times due to the continuation of criminal terror crimes," he said. "Al Qaeda is waging a war of extermination on Kurds and Shiites."
The alliance and a Kurdish coalition agreed last week to form a coalition government with Shiite politician Ibrahim al-Jaafari as prime minister. In return, Talabani will become Iraq's first Kurdish president, though the presidency is a largely ceremonial post.
Minutes before the assembly convened, at least a half-dozen explosions detonated a few hundred yards away. The U.S. military said two mortar rounds landed inside the zone but caused no injuries.
After Wednesday's session ended, another mortar shell hit an empty building in central Baghdad's Karradah neighborhood, setting the two-story structure on fire, police and witnesses said. There were no reports of injuries.
To prevent suicide car bomb attacks against Iraq's new lawmakers, authorities stepped up security around the Green Zone. Two bridges leading to the zone were shut down Tuesday, and roadblocks were erected on other streets leading to the area.
The U.S.-led coalition came under pressure as Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi announced plans to withdraw the country's 3,000 troops in September as the Iraqis slowly take control, a move that could complicate efforts to keep the peace.
Bush said Wednesday he spoke with Berlusconi and understood his concerns, and he denied that what the administration has called the "coalition of the willing" was crumbling.
"Countries will be willing, anxious to get out when Iraqis have got the capacity to defend themselves," he said. "And that's the position of the United States: Our troops will come home when Iraq is capable of defending herself."
He said Berlusconi "wanted me to know that there was no change in his policy, that, in fact, any withdrawals would be done in consultation with allies and would be done depending upon the ability of Iraqis to defend themselves."
A U.S. soldier died in a roadside bomb blast south of the Iraqi capital on Wednesday, the military said. It did not say where exactly the blast took place.
A suicide car bomb exploded near at Iraqi army checkpoint in Baqouba, 35 miles northeast of Baghdad, killing four Iraqi soldiers and wounding 15, said U.S. Maj. Neil Harper. The bomber also died.
On Tuesday, 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.
Ali al-Dabagh, a member of the Shiite clergy-dominated United Iraqi Alliance, which won the most seats in the elections, said Tuesday 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.
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.
"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 people for this post, but until 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'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.
Mohammad Bashar al-Faidhi, a spokesman for the influential Sunni group, the Association of Muslim Scholars, dismissed the assembly session.
"We hope that this government will abide by the fact that it was not elected by the majority," al-Faidhi said in an interview broadcast on the Dubai-based Al-Arabiya satellite channel. "It does not represent all Iraq."
Yawer praised the election that preceded Wednesday's parliament session.
"These elections have proven that the Iraqi people truly deserve to be described as courageous and highly responsible," he said. "These elections made others respect us."