Iraq fails to pick new leaders

Baghdad - Iraq's inaugural session of parliament ended Tuesday without agreement on the formation of a new government, damping hopes that the country's fractious politicians would rise to the challenge presented by an insurgency that is tearing their nation apart.

After a brief and at times chaotic meeting, Mahdi Hafidh, the acting speaker of the newly elected parliament, adjourned the session until next week, citing the lack of a quorum in the 328-member chamber after Kurdish and Sunni lawmakers withdrew.

Caretaker Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki attended the session at the heavily guarded parliament building in central Baghdad amid a groundswell of opposition to his quest for a third term.

There was no indication, however, that an agreement is near among the major Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish factions on a new candidate for the premiership, or that they are close to selecting the other top posts - the speaker of parliament and the president.

The formation of a new government is a matter of urgency as Iraq confronts the biggest challenge to its existence since it won independence in 1932. Al-Qaida-inspired insurgents have conquered much of the north and west of the country, Kurds have asserted control over the northern city of Kirkuk, and the government in Baghdad has been scrambling to hold together what is left of its collapsing security forces.

In a sign of the seriousness of the violence convulsing the country, the United Nations announced that 2,417 Iraqis were killed and 2,287 were injured in June, one of the highest monthly tolls since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. Of those killed, 1,531 were civilians, a figure that the U.N. special representative for Iraq, Nickolay Mladenov, called "staggering."

"It is imperative that national leaders work together to foil attempts to destroy the social fabric of society," said Mladenov, a former Bulgarian foreign minister. He stressed that a military response alone would not be enough to resolve the threat posed by the militant assault.

The parliamentary session got off to a positive start with the playing of the national anthem as 255 lawmakers gathered in the chamber, an unexpectedly high turnout for the typically poorly attended parliament.

Hafidh told them that the "security setback" presented by the insurgents should be dealt with urgently.

"The security setback that has beset Iraq must be brought to a stop, and security and stability have to be regained all over Iraq, so that it can head down the path in the right way toward the future," he said.

But tensions quickly surfaced after two lawmakers - a Kurd and a Shiite - exchanged barbs over the central government's failure to make budget payments to the semiautonomous Iraqi region of Kurdistan.

"They are Kurds, not Iraqis," said Mohammed Naji Mohammed, the Shiite lawmaker, after the heated exchange. He represents the Shiite Badr Organization, whose affiliated militiamen are battling insurgents north of the capital.

Mohammed, dressed in combat fatigues, complained that Kurdish politicians had distracted the chamber with a "side issue," and he accused Kurds of seizing abandoned Iraqi military equipment from the battlefield and using the crisis to make a land grab.

In an interview with the BBC on Tuesday, Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdish region, said the Kurds would hold a referendum on the independence of Kurdistan in a matter of months.

"In reality, Iraq is partitioned. Should we stay in this tragic situation?" he said. "We can't remain hostage to an unknown future indefinitely."

Meanwhile, a rift among Sunnis emerged over whom they will support for the job of speaker.

After a short break, Kurds and some of the Sunnis did not return to the chamber, leaving the session without the required two-thirds of its members to proceed.

In accordance with the power-sharing arrangement that emerged under the U.S.-brokered constitution drawn up in 2005, the top three jobs of speaker, president and prime minister have traditionally been shared among the Sunni, Kurdish and Shiite blocs, respectively.

The first task of the new parliament is to elect a speaker, followed by a president, who then asks the leader of the largest parliamentary bloc to form a government. But Sunnis, Kurds and Shiites are internally split on which candidates to select for the positions, further complicating the quest for unity.

Maliki's political bloc has been calling for the replacement of the current speaker, Osama al-Nujaifi.

Sunni lawmakers said they had reached an agreement to nominate Salim al-Jibouri, a member of the Islamic Party, as speaker, but as the session got underway, that agreement seemed to crumble.

The Sunnis are not prepared to announce the replacement for Nujaifi until they have a guarantee that Maliki will step aside, said Dhafer al-Ani, a spokesman for the Sunni Mutahidun bloc.

"We can't start a step on our own, without knowing what the final step will be," he said. "We don't have an objection to presenting a candidate aside from Nujaifi, but only on the condition that the (Shiite parties) provide a candidate other than Maliki."

Sunni Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlak said the candidates would be decided in the next "week or two" but added that there was little doubt that Maliki would be replaced.

"The matter is over," he said.

The Kurds also have not settled on a candidate for the presidency, though Barham Salih, a former deputy prime minister, is considered the front-runner.

Shiites, who form the biggest bloc, also are deeply divided over whom to pick as prime minister. Although a consensus appears to have emerged that Maliki should go, there is no sign of an agreement on who should replace him. Maliki's allies continue to support his candidacy publicly, though some have indicated privately that they would switch allegiance if a more suitable candidate surfaces.

Haidar al-Abadi, a member of Maliki's State of Law coalition, suggested that no agreement is imminent. He also rejected Sunni demands that all three posts be picked at once.

"How can you ask us to select a prime minister when the Kurds haven't decided on a candidate for president and the Sunnis haven't agreed on a speaker?" he asked. "The first two phases aren't complete. Choosing the prime minister is the final link in the chain."

Khaled al-Asadi, a member of Maliki's political party, said the Shiites "still need time."

"State of Law only have one official candidate, and that is Maliki," he said. "But, of course, we have respect for the mechanisms of democracy," he added, a hint to the uncertainty surrounding Malki's candidacy.

With Sunni insurgents active on the outskirts of Baghdad, the government imposed a major security clampdown across the capital ahead of the parliamentary session. A public holiday was declared to keep the streets clear of traffic; soldiers and police were deployed heavily on the streets; and bridges across the Tigris River were closed.

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