BAGHDAD/WASHINGTON: Iraq’s parliament, which had been due to elect the country’s president Wednesday, postponed the vote by a day, delaying the formation of a power-sharing government urgently needed to confront an insurgency raging in the country.
Politicians have been deadlocked over forming a new government since an election in April, and in Washington, officials said the United States was continuing to mull the possibility of authorizing drone strikes against ISIS militants.
Speaker Salim al-Jubouri told parliament that the Kurds had asked for a one-day delay so they could agree on a candidate. Parliament has until the end of the month to choose a president, who will then have 15 days to nominate a prime minister.
“Iraq cannot afford a protracted government formation process as the current threats continue to challenge the existence of the Iraqi state,” Nickolay Mladenov, the U.N. special envoy to Iraq, told the U.N. Security Council.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who has been on a Middle East tour to seek an end to the fighting in Gaza, was expected to visit Baghdad Thursday to meet Jubouri.
He is also expected to hold talks with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who has ruled since the election in a caretaker capacity, defying demands from Sunni and Kurd politicians that he step aside for a less-polarizing figure. Even some Shiite figures want Maliki to go.
ISIS, which has renamed itself the Islamic State, now controls a swath of territory from Aleppo in Syria close to the Mediterranean to the outskirts of Baghdad.
Washington hopes a more inclusive government in Baghdad could save Iraq by persuading moderate Sunnis to turn against the insurgency, as many did during the “surge” offensive in 2006-7 when U.S. troops paid them to switch sides.
ISIS claimed responsibility for an overnight suicide bombing in a Shiite district of Baghdad that killed 33 people, one of the deadliest recent attacks in the capital.
In other violence, a bomb planted in a restaurant in the mainly Shiite town of Mahmoudiya just south of Baghdad killed two people, police and medical sources said.
Security forces found the bodies of eight Iraqi soldiers 3 kilometers outside Samarra, the most northern city under full government control, while in the town of Jalawla, 115 kilometers northeast of Baghdad, ISIS gunmen killed six men because they were relatives of policemen, police said.
Also, an airstrike by government forces on a civilian area in the town of Sharqat, north of Tikrit, killed 12 people, a hospital source said.
In Washington, a top State Department official said the U.S. had boosted the number of surveillance flights over Iraq to nearly 50 a day from one a month.
However, Washington has not yet authorized unmanned drone strikes against ISIS militants as requested by Baghdad, according to testimony by Brett McGurk, deputy assistant secretary for Iraq and Iran, at a House of Representatives hearing.
“The formal request from the Iraqis for direct U.S. air support did not come in a formal way until May,” McGurk said, which was too late to keep ISIS fighters from overrunning Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city. “And since that time, obviously, we’ve been looking at various options.”
The U.S. priority, he said, has been to “enable” the Iraqis to stop the insurgents on its own, using hellfire missiles, aircraft and the ramped up surveillance.
McGurk’s answers frustrated Republican and Democratic members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, who said the administration missed a chance to stop the militants six months ago.They questioned whether the OPEC oil producer would survive, less than three years after the withdrawal of U.S. troops ended a war that cost more than $2 trillion and killed almost 4,500 American troops and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis.
McGurk described ISIS as “worse than Al-Qaeda.”
“It’s no longer a terrorist group. It’s a full-blown army,” he said.
Elissa Slotkin, acting deputy undersecretary of defense for policy, said the militants were particularly dangerous because they held territory, had experienced fighters, were self-financing and included many Western passport holders who have traveled to Syria.
The U.S. has “up to” 775 troops in Iraq, of whom 475 are deployed to assure the security of American personnel and facilities and 300 to monitor, including the amped-up surveillance and reconnaissance flights.
Committee members questioned administration officials about why Washington did not do more, and more quickly, as the militants advanced.
Many lawmakers called for Maliki to step down, but administration officials declined to be drawn into discussing the issue.
Separately, Iraq’s defense minister flew to Moscow to ask his counterpart for military equipment, a spokesman said.
Saadun al-Dulaimi was carrying a letter from Maliki to Russian President Vladimir Putin “explaining the security and political situation in Iraq and the need to strengthen military cooperation,” Lt. Gen. Mohammad al-Askari said.
“Dulaimi will meet the Russian defense minister and other officials to urge them to provide Iraq with weapons, equipment and modern military aircraft,” Askari said.