Iraq's highest court on Sunday ordered parliament back to work after a virtual seven-month recess, intensifying pressure to break the political stalemate that has held up formation of a new government.
The 325 lawmakers met only once since they were elected on March 7 for a session that lasted 20 minutes and consisted of a reading from Islam's holy book, the Quran, the playing of the national anthem and swearing in new members.
Under the constitution, parliament was required to meet within 15 days of final court approval of election results, which came on June 1. Lawmakers met on June 14 and should have chosen a parliament speaker during their first session and then the president within 30 days. But these appointments had to be put off because they are part of the negotiations between major political blocs over the rest of the new leadership _ including a prime minister and top Cabinet officials.
After the June meeting, lawmakers agreed to leave the parliament session open but unattended _ a technicality to allow more time to choose a new leadership and to put off choosing a new speaker or president.
But the Supreme Court deemed that decision "illegal" in its ruling on Sunday.
"The federal Supreme Court decided to cancel this decision, binding the parliament speaker to call on lawmakers to convene parliament and resume work," the ruling said. The delay "violated the constitution," it added.
Parliament's absence has meant inaction on business-friendly reforms, such as streamlining bureaucracy and clarifying rules for foreign investment, among other major decisions.
The absent parliamentarians are earning $22,500 a month in salary and housing allowance _ far more than the average $800 monthly salary of an Iraqi professional. And that doesn't include a $90,000 stipend they were given after they were sworn in to cover expenses for the next four years.
The court's ruling effectively turns up the pressure to break the 7-month-old impasse on forming a government.
"This decision will put pressure on political blocs to speed up their negotiations, and to nominate a prime minister candidate," said Kurdish lawmaker Alaa Talabani, a relative of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani.
Sunday's court order settles a lawsuit brought by independent watchdog groups against parliament's acting speaker, Fouad Massoum. In a brief interview Sunday, Massoum said he has not yet seen the order but has no choice but to abide by the court's demands.
He told The Associated Press he expects to set a date for a meeting by the end of the week, though it was not clear when the meeting would take place. Lawmakers, however, said they would not be able to accomplish much if they reconvened before political parties agree on a ruling coalition and choose a prime minister.
Under pressure from foreign allies and mounting exasperation from the Iraqi public, leaders since have twice tried _ and failed _ to bring parliament back.
The March elections failed to give any party a ruling majority. Since then, dueling political leaders have resisted returning as they try to corral alliances that will allow them to choose a prime minister and form a coalition government.
Sunni lawmaker Osama Nujaifi predicted parliament would ignore the order and resist convening for at least a week if "the political blocs haven't agreed yet" on a new government.
Kurdish lawmaker Azad Chalak said that convening before deals are made on leadership posts "probably would lead to parliament dismantling" without having anybody in charge. He predicted that could, in turn, trigger courts to order a new election.
With 51 seats, the Kurdish bloc is considered a kingmaker whose support is critical to forming any ruling coalition.
Iraq is still struggling with its political identity after its majority Shiite population was ruled for decades by Saddam Hussein's Sunni-led regime. Since Saddam's fall, Iraq has been governed mostly by Shiites and Kurds, raising fears that Sunnis who feel they have been sidelined will re-ignite sectarian strife across the country.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is battling to keep his job after the Sunni-backed Iraqiya list led by former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi narrowly won the most seats in the March vote.
The impasse could drag on for months more.