BAGHDAD: Iraqi lawmakers broke two weeks of deadlock Tuesday and elected a new speaker of parliament, with no sign on whether lawmakers would eventually agree on the most contentious decision – the choice for prime minister.
The incumbent, Nouri al-Maliki, is under intense pressure to step aside after eight years in office but he has insisted on staying for a third term, even as an insurgent offensive grips the north and west of the country.
After a closed-door vote, the legislature tallied the results on a whiteboard wheeled into the hall that showed Sunni lawmaker Salim al-Jubouri winning with 194 votes out of 273 cast in the 328-seat parliament. A second candidate, Shorooq al-Abayachi, received 19 votes. There were 60 abstentions.
“Today’s step demonstrates the country’s democracy and national unity,” said Shiite lawmaker Abbas al-Bayati, putting a decidedly positive spin on a vote that was delayed twice. “We have now a legislative body that can do its job in building democracy.”
Lawmakers applauded after Jubouri passed the 165-vote threshold needed to win the post, and some of his colleagues walked over to offer their congratulations.
Parliament now has 30 days to elect a president, who will then have 15 days to ask the leader of the legislature’s largest bloc to form a government. Then a prime minister will be picked.
By informal agreement, the speaker’s chair goes to a Sunni, the presidency to a Kurd and the prime minister’s post to a Shiite.
The inability of Maliki’s government to halt the militant offensive – spearheaded by Al-Qaeda splinter group ISIS but also comprising tribal and ex-Baath Party elements – has deeply shaken confidence, both at home and abroad, in his ability to hold Iraq together. Opponents, and even former allies, accuse him of trying to monopolize power and alienating the Sunni community.
Maliki insists he has a mandate because his bloc won the most seats in April elections.
Despite Jubouri’s election, signs quickly emerged that any agreement on a president, prime minister and eventually a new Cabinet could still take some time.
Bayati, the State of Law coalition legislator, said the Shiite bloc’s support for Jubouri was predicated upon reciprocal support for Maliki as prime minister.
“There is an ethical and political agreement with the blocs to whom we gave our vote today to support their candidate for the post of parliament speaker, and to vote for our candidate for the post of prime minister: Maliki,” Bayati said.
Sunni lawmaker Mohammad Ikbal, a member of Jubouri’s bloc, denied there was any such deal.
“We do not support a third term [for Maliki] because of the wrong policies in the country and the deterioration in the security situation,” Ikbal told the Associated Press. “We support any other candidate from the National Alliance.”Perhaps just as important were the divisions that emerged within the National Alliance, the umbrella group for Shiite parties, during the vote for the first of two deputy speakers. Lawmakers said there was an agreement among all of the alliance’s blocs to present the State of Law’s Haider al-Ibadi as the Shiite nominee for deputy speaker. But at the last minute, a second Shiite candidate, Ahmad Chalabi, was also nominated for the post.
In the ballot, Ibadi and Chalabi nearly split the vote, forcing lawmakers to cast their ballots again. Chalabi, a secular Shiite and onetime Washington favorite who is disliked by Iraq’s Sunnis, eventually withdrew his candidacy.
The dispute pointed to the deep divisions within the National Alliance, and suggested that Shiite parties are still far from settling on a common candidate for the crucial post of prime minister.
Meanwhile, government forces began a new push against the militant-held city of Tikrit, some 130 kilometers north of Baghdad, as its 2-week-old offensive stalls. Jawad al-Bolani, a security official in the provincial operation command, said troops had taken over the Tikrit general hospital as well as a police academy on the city’s southern edge.
After sundown, two car bombs exploded on a commercial street in the Shiite neighborhood of Sadr City in eastern Baghdad, killing at least eight people and wounding 20, police and medical officials said.