Iraqi former Parliament speaker and the chairman of the Sunni Arab Coalition Osama al-Nujaifi, center, speaks to the media during a July 13 press conference in Baghdad. (Karim Kadim / AP)
BAGHDAD — Iraq’s deadlocked parliament failed Sunday to overcome the deep divisions hampering the formation of a new government, making no progress on choosing new leaders who could help hold the nation together and confront the Sunni militant blitz that has overrun much of the country.
The legislature is under pressure to quickly choose a new speaker of parliament, president and prime minister — the first steps toward a new government. The international community has pressed lawmakers to put their differences aside, while the United Nations has warned of chaos if the political impasse drags on for too long.
But just 30 minutes into Sunday’s parliament session, acting speaker Mahdi al-Hafidh announced he was breaking off the proceedings until Tuesday “due to the absence of any agreement on the names of the nominees for the three posts.”
“There are still deep differences,” he said. “We need more discussions to agree on the names.”
Hopes had been raised that lawmakers might at least vote on a speaker of parliament after Sunni blocs announced late Saturday that they had agreed on a candidate for the post, Salim al-Jubouri. But even that proved difficult, and lawmakers dispersed amid mutual recriminations.
“We have presented our candidate for the post of the parliament speaker,” said leading Sunni lawmaker Osama al-Nujaifi. “We hold other blocs responsible for the delay.”
Another Sunni legislator, Saleh al-Mutlaq, said that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki agreed to support al-Jubouri’s candidacy on the condition that Sunnis back al-Maliki for a third consecutive term. “This will not happen as we do not accept that,” al-Mutlaq told The Associated Press.
Mohammed Saadoun, a lawmaker from al-Maliki’s State of Law bloc, confirmed that al-Jubouri will not receive support without Sunnis first guaranteeing they will back al-Maliki for prime minister. “All sides that get our votes should be clear and giver their votes to us,” he told AP.
Under an informal arrangement that took hold after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, the speaker’s chair goes to a Sunni, the presidency to a Kurd and the prime minister’s post to a Shiite. The greatest disagreement is over prime minister, the most powerful position in the country.
Al-Maliki has held the post since 2006, but is now under pressure to step aside. His opponents, and even many of his former allies, accuse him of trying to monopolize power and alienating the Sunni community, and are pushing him to not seek a third consecutive term. Al-Maliki has so far refused to withdraw his candidacy, and points to his State of Law bloc’s capturing the most seats in April elections to claim he has a mandate.
The candidates aren’t the only point of contention. There is also disagreement on whether to choose the speaker, president and prime minister individually, or to agree to all three as a sort of package deal — which has been the case in the past.
The urgency for Iraq’s lawmakers to bridge their differences and forge an agreement stems from the threat the nation faces from the Sunni militants who swept across much of northern and western Iraq over the past month, raising the prospect of an Iraq cut in three along ethnic and sectarian lines.
On Sunday, the insurgents barreled unopposed into the town of Duluiyah, some 80 kilometers (45 miles) north of Baghdad, seizing the mayor’s office, police station, local council and courthouse, a police officer said. They also blew up a bridge that links the town with the predominantly Shiite city of Balad nearby.
The Iraqi military launched a counterattack that drove the militants from part of Duluiyah, but clashes were still raging around the police station and mayor’s office, the officer said, adding that six members of the security forces and six pro-government Sunni militiamen had been killed in the fighting.
A medical official in the nearby city of Samarra confirmed the casualty figures.
Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief the media.
The insurgents are led by the Islamic State extremist group, which has declared the establishment of an Islamic state ruled by Shariah law in the territory it has seized straddling the Iraq-Syria border.
The jihadi group has been joined in Iraq by an array of other Sunni militant factions, including the Army of the Men of the Naqshbandi Order — a collection of former members of Saddam Hussein’s now-outlawed Baath party.
An audio recording purportedly from Naqshbandi leader Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri surfaced overnight, in which he hailed the militants’ “historic victories” in recent weeks and reserved special praise for the Islamic State group.
“Our great Iraqi people along with their brave forces have achieved a great victory through a tough and bloody struggle since more than 11 years,” the man reported to be al-Douri said in the nearly 15-minute recording. The authenticity of the audio could not be immediately confirmed, though it sounded like previous recordings made of al-Douri.
The fugitive al-Douri is the highest-ranking member of Saddam’s toppled government to escape the 2003 U.S.-led invasion and elude security forces. He was the “king of clubs” in the deck of playing cards issued by the U.S. to help troops identify the most-wanted members of Saddam’s regime.
In the recording, the man believed to be al-Douri said the militant offensive marked a “historic and great turning point in the nation’s march of jihad to achieve its freedom and unity and to build prosperous future for coming generations.”
He praised the tribal leaders and other militant groups who have taken part in the fighting, but especially “the heroes and the knights of al-Qaida and the Islamic State, to whom I send a special salutation full of appreciation and love.”
Associated Press writers Ryan Lucas and Murtada Faraj contributed to this report from Baghdad.