BAGHDAD: Sunnis and Kurds walked out of the first session of Iraq’s new parliament Tuesday after Shiites failed to name a prime minister to replace Nouri al-Maliki, dimming any prospect of an early national unity government to save Iraq from collapse.
The United States, the United Nations, Iran and Iraq’s own Shiite sheikhs have pushed hard for politicians to come up with an inclusive government to hold the fragmenting country together as Sunni insurgents bear down on Baghdad.
The leader of the Al-Qaeda offshoot spearheading the insurgency, the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), has declared a “caliphate” in the lands it has seized in Iraq and Syria. Its leader vowed Tuesday to avenge what he said were wrongs committed against Muslims.
Despite the urgency, the Iraqi parliament’s first session since its election in April collapsed when Sunnis and Kurds refused to return from a recess to the chamber after Shiites failed to name a prime minister.
Parliament is not likely to meet again for at least a week, leaving Iraq in political limbo and Maliki clinging to power as a caretaker, rejected by Sunnis and Kurds.
Under a governing system put in place after the removal of Saddam Hussein, the prime minister has always been a member of the Shiite majority, the speaker of parliament a Sunni and the largely ceremonial president a Kurd.
The Shiite bloc known as the National Alliance, in which Maliki’s State of Law coalition is the biggest group, has met repeatedly in recent days to bargain over the premiership but has so far been unable either to endorse Maliki for a third term or to name an alternative.
Fewer than a third of lawmakers returned from the recess. Sunni parties said they would not put forward their candidate for speaker until the Shiites pick a premier. The Kurds have also yet to nominate a president.The Kurds will hold an independence referendum within months, their leader Massoud Barzani told the BBC Tuesday.
Barzani said the time was right for a vote as Iraq was already effectively partitioned following the lightning gains by ISIS.
“We will hold a referendum in Kurdistan and we will respect and be bound by the decision of our people and hope that others will do likewise,” he said.
Asked whether the vote would take place soon, Barzani added: “I can’t fix a date right now but definitely it’s a question of months. But of course it must be decided by parliament.”
The region would need to establish an independent electoral authority before a vote could take place, Barzani noted.
After the failed parliament session, Osama al-Nujaifi, a leading Sunni politician, former speaker and foe of Maliki, warned “without a political solution, the sound of weapons will be loud, and the country will enter a black tunnel.”
“If there is a new policy with a new prime minister, we will deal with them positively. Otherwise the country will go from bad to worse,” Nujaifi said.
The United States, which has been pressuring Iraq to form a more inclusive government, said it was a welcome sign that the Iraqi parliament had met Tuesday as scheduled, but it said Baghdad should move more quickly to form the new government.
“Let’s be clear, this needs to happen as soon as possible,” said State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf. “It was important that Iraq’s new parliament convened today, as they pledged to do ... But we do hope that Iraq’s leaders will move forward with the extreme urgency that the current situation deserves.”
Baghdad can ill-afford further delays. Government troops have been battling for three weeks against fighters led by ISIS. This week it shortened its label itself to the Islamic State and declared its leader “caliph” – historic title of successors of the Prophet Mohammad who ruled the whole Muslim world.
Speaking for the first time since then, the group’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi vowed revenge for what he said were wrongs committed against Muslims, calling on fighters to avenge them
“Your brothers, on every piece of this earth, are waiting for your rescue,” Baghdadi purportedly said in an audio message that was posted online, naming a string of countries from Central African Republic to Myanmar where he said violations were being committed against Muslims.
“By Allah, we will take revenge, by Allah we will take revenge, even if after a while,” he said in the Ramadan message. Baghdadi also called on Muslims to immigrate to the “Islamic State,” saying it was a duty.
The insurgents’ advance has triggered pledges of support for Baghdad from both Washington and Tehran.
Iraq flew Russian-made Sukhoi Su-25 jets delivered Saturday for the first time, state television said, although there was no independent confirmation.
Iraq is increasingly turning to other governments like Iran, Russia and Syria because it cannot wait for additional American military aid, Baghdad’s top envoy to the U.S. said Tuesday.
Ambassador Lukman Faily said Baghdad would prefer to partner with the U.S. above all other countries but that delays in U.S. aid have forced Iraq to seek help elsewhere. He also called on the U.S. to launch targeted airstrikes as a “crucial” step against the insurgency. So far, the Obama administration has resisted airstrikes in Iraq but has not ruled them out.
“Time is not on our side,” Faily told an audience in Washington. “Further delay only benefits the terrorists.”