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Iraqi parliament goes on a break

Lawmakers will recess until Dec. 30, breaking off efforts at a sectarian reconciliation bill.

BAGHDAD - Iraqi legislators suspended parliamentary sessions yesterday until the end of the month to mark the Muslim religious season, ending efforts to pass U.S.-backed legislation this year to achieve sectarian reconciliation.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, visiting Baghdad, welcomed a report from his top commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, that violence had declined 60 percent in the last six months, but he warned that "people are getting impatient" for the Iraqi government to take advantage of improved security and move toward needed political reforms.

The Sunni speaker of parliament announced the decision to suspend sessions after days of debate over a draft bill that would allow thousands of former members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party, many of them Sunnis, to return to government jobs.

The measure is among the 18 benchmarks set by the United States to encourage reconciliation.

Speaker Mahmoud al-Mashhadani said the legislative body would not hold another session until Dec. 30 because many lawmakers would be traveling to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, for the annual Islamic pilgrimage.

Others were expected to leave the capital to spend Eid al-Adha, or the feast of sacrifice, with families elsewhere in Iraq or abroad. The holiday begins around Dec. 20.

The suspension was the latest setback to efforts by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Shiite-dominated government to bring minority Sunnis into the political process.

The 275-member parliament came under criticism in the summer for taking August off despite lack of progress on passing the legislation, including a law to ensure equitable distribution of Iraq's oil riches.

Before the legislature adjourned, a shouting match erupted when a Shiite lawmaker, Bahaa al-Aaraji, a follower of the radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, accused a powerful Sunni politician of harboring sectarian sentiments against Shiites.

Iraq's Shiite-dominated government has repeatedly raided the offices of the Sunni politician, Adnan al-Dulaimi, in a western Baghdad neighborhood in the past week, arresting 42 people linked to the politician after one of his guards was discovered with a key to an explosives-laden car.

But the chief military spokesman, Brig. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi, said Dulaimi himself, an elderly man, was not under suspicion.

Dulaimi leads the Iraqi Accordance Front, a three-party alliance with 44 seats in parliament, and he has been a harsh critic of Maliki, a Shiite. The Front's six cabinet ministers pulled out of the government to protest the prime minister's policies.

"Everything he said is nothing but lies," Dulaimi told reporters outside the chamber. "I am a well-known and a peaceful personality, and I don't incite the killing of Shiites, Kurds or Sunnis. I dare anyone to prove otherwise."

Sunni-Shiite tensions soared after the bombing in February 2006 of a major Shiite shrine north of Baghdad. The bombing, blamed on Sunni militants, unleashed a wave of sectarian killings that has claimed tens of thousands of lives.

U.S. officials had hoped that approval of the benchmark laws would help bridge the sectarian gap.

The Iraqis have received mixed reviews for their efforts, and American troops have shifted their focus to supporting Sunnis at the grass-roots level, persuading tribal leaders to turn on extremists, lowering the number of attacks to levels not seen since January 2006.

An Associated Press count shows also that Iraqi civilian deaths from war-related violence have dropped substantially over the last six months, from 1,640 in June to 718 in November.