Talabani Orders First Parliament Session

President Jalal Talabani issued a decree Friday ordering Iraq's new parliament to hold its first session March 19, his chief of staff told The Associated Press.

There still was no resolution of the bitter dispute over a new term for Shiite Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, prompting Massoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdish region of Iraq, to issue a statement saying the country was in political "crisis."

Talabani spokesman Kamran al-Karadaghi said the president "has called for parliament to hold its first session on March 19." Talabani also invited the leaders of all the major blocs in parliament to meet with him in Irbil as soon as possible to seek a resolution.

That invitation appeared to grow out of or coincide with discussions U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad is conducting with Iraqi politicians to overcome the leadership stalemate.

Time magazine reported on its Web site that Khalilzad hoped to coax the country's major politicians to join him in a conference, "possibly outside Iraq," to sort out the formation of a government. Time said Khalilzad is advocating an "old-fashioned solution to family squabbles: Lock them up in a room and don't let them out until they have sorted out their differences."

U.S. Embassy spokeswoman Elizabeth Colton said Friday that Khalilzad hoped to convene a meeting such as the one suggested by Barzani, "but there is nothing definite yet and no plans yet for where or when — should it be decided."

Washington wants to see a strong central authority and has made that a condition of its plans to begin drawing down American forces this summer.

Talabani, a Kurd who has opened a campaign with Sunni and some secular politicians to deny al-Jaafari a second term, first sought to issue the necessary decree last Sunday, but was unable to obtain the signature of one of two vice presidents, Adil Abdul-Mahdi, who leads the Shiite parliamentary bloc loyal to Adbul-Aziz al-Hakim, leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq.

The president has challenged al-Jaafari's candidacy on grounds he is too divisive and would be unable to form a government representing all Iraq's religious and ethnic factions. There was also great unease over al-Jaafari's close ties to radical anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

Talabani first sought to order the first session on March 12, the date dictated by the constitution.

Both Abdul-Mahdi and al-Hakim held back because of the uncertainty over al-Jaafari, apparently reluctant to be force to publicly join those in the opposition because they did not want to publicize the split in Shiite ranks. On Thursday, however, the two political heavyweights relented and Abdul-Mahd agreed to sign.

The opening of parliament is the first step in the process of forming Iraq's first permanent, post-invasion government. When parliament convenes, it has 60 days to accomplish the task.