BAGHDAD: Iraq's new parliament postponed its next session for five weeks on Monday, extending the country's political paralysis in the face of a Sunni Islamist insurgency which claimed the life of an army general on the northwestern outskirts of Baghdad.
Citing the inability of political camps to reach "understanding and agreement" on nominations for the top three posts in government, the office of acting speaker Mehdi al-Hafidh said parliament would not meet again until Aug. 12.
Putting off the work of reaching consensus for five weeks is a slap in the face to efforts by Iraq's Shi'ite clergy - along with the United States, the United Nations and Iran - to foster an inclusive government to hold the country together.
With no signs that Shi'ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki will abandon his bid for a third term, there is a risk that Iraq will fragment along ethnic and sectarian lines.
"Things are moving faster than the politicians can make decisions," a senior Shi'ite member of parliament told Reuters.
The Islamic State, an al Qaeda offshoot, and a patchwork of Sunni insurgents are holding territory they seized in northern and western Iraq last month.
Kurds, who run their own autonomous region in northern Iraq, have taken advantage of the chaos to expand their territory.
Maliki's opponents blame his divisive rule for fuelling the political crisis and want him to step aside. They accuse him of ruling for the Shi'ite majority at the expense of the Sunni and Kurdish minorities.
Maliki said last week that he hoped to overcome the challenges blocking the formation of a new government after the new parliament's first session ended without agreement on the top posts of prime minister, president and parliament speaker.
Attempts by Iraqi government forces to push militants out of cities that they seized have not yet resulted in visible gains on the ground. The government has yet to take back the rebel-held city of Tikrit since it began an offensive on June 28.
A senior Iraqi general was killed in fighting with insurgents close to Baghdad on Monday, as the army fights to hold militants back from the capital.
Major General Negm Abdullah Ali, commander of the army's sixth division, responsible for defending part of Baghdad, was killed just 16 km (10 miles) northwest of the capital.
Top U.S. defence officials, who have deployed advisers to the region to assess the state of the Iraqi military, said last week the security forces were able to defend the capital but would have difficulty going on the offensive to recapture lost territory, mainly because of logistic weaknesses.
Under a governing system put in place after the removal of Saddam Hussein, the prime minister has always been a member of the Shi'ite majority, the speaker of parliament a Sunni and the largely ceremonial president a Kurd.
Politicians criticised the parliamentary delay, but held others responsible. Sunnis and Kurds blame the State of Law coalition, the Shi'ite grouping that includes Maliki's Dawa Party, for failing to name a prime minister.
Sunni lawmaker Salim el Jabouri, head of the Diyala Hawiyyatuna list, told Reuters he was "astonished" and frustrated at the length of the delay.
"This issue cannot be settled by one party without agreement among the rest...and no party has made up its mind concerning their nominee."
The State of Law said it rejected the "transgression of constitutional timelines" caused by the delay.
Maliki's bid for a third term as prime minister appears to be hanging in the balance. Results of April's elections initially suggested parliament would easily confirm Maliki in power for another term.
Some within his own alliance are whispering about the need for him to step aside, although Maliki has stated publicly he will not give up his candidacy.
"The Prime Minster can't get the numbers as they stand now," a State of Law official told Reuters. "If State of Law doesn't think Maliki can get the numbers, then (we) will put another name forward. As every day passes...Maliki realizes this more and more."
Another State of Law member called the decision to postpone the session unconstitutional and said it would hinder efforts to reach agreements on the top posts.
"The postponement for a month will lead to a state of slackness and lack of seriousness in conducting dialogue," Abbas al-Bayati said on state television.
Joining the chorus, Shi'ite Muslim cleric Moqtada al-Sadr on Sunday urged the State of Law coalition to withdraw its support for Maliki and choose another candidate.
Iraqi lawyer Zaid al Ali called the delay "another failure of the political class."
"Each side is prioritising their own situation above all other interests."