BAGHDAD: Iraqi lawmakers elected a veteran Kurdish politician Thursday to replace long-serving Jalal Talabani as the country’s new president in the latest step toward forming a new government.
But a series of attacks throughout the country killed dozens, including more than 50 prisoners being evacuated by bus to prevent a jailbreak.
The 76-year-old Fouad Massoum, one of the founders of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan Party led by the previous president, Talabani, accepted the position after winning two-thirds of the votes in parliament, noting the “huge security, political and economic tasks” facing the next government.
Iraq is facing its worst crisis since the 2011 withdrawal of U.S. troops amid the offensive launched last month by Al-Qaeda breakaway group ISIS, which captured large swaths of land in the country’s west and north, including Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul.
In Baghdad, a double car bombing ripped through the busy commercial district of Karradah as people gathered at dusk to break their daily fast for Ramadan, killing 21 people and wounding 33 and sending smoke billowing over the city, police and hospital officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to media.
Earlier in the day, militants fired mortar shells on an army base holding suspects facing terrorism charges in Taji, about 20 km north of Baghdad. As the prisoners were being evacuated by bus to prevent a jailbreak, the militants attacked with roadside bombs, igniting a gunbattle that left 52 prisoners and eight soldiers dead, the officials said, adding that another eight soldiers and seven prisoners were wounded in the gunbattle.
It was not immediately clear if the prisoners were killed by soldiers or militants, or if ISIS was involved. No one immediately claimed responsibility for the attack. In the past, militants have staged several jailbreaks in Iraq, including a complex, military-style assault on two Baghdad-area prisons in July 2013 that freed more than 500 inmates.
The post of Iraq’s president – previously held by the ailing Talabani – is largely symbolic but Thursday’s election marked a step toward achieving consensus among political rivals, badly needed if Iraq is to tackle the unprecedented security crisis.
The next step in the political transition will be for Masoum to select a candidate for prime minister who will try to form a new government.
Incumbent Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s bloc won the most seats in April elections but has faced mounting pressure to step aside, with critics accusing him of monopolizing power and alienating the country’s Sunni and Kurdish minorities, contributing to the latest unrest.
The prime minister has, however, vowed to remain in the post he has held since 2006. U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon urged lawmakers to “find a common ground” so they can address the crisis sparked by ISIS, whose push has threatened to fracture Iraq. At a news conference with Maliki, Ban said Iraq is facing an “existential threat,” but one that could be overcome if it forms a “thoroughly inclusive government.”
Maliki said he is committed to quickly forming a government.
Ban strongly condemned the persecution of religious and ethnic minority groups by ISIS and other extremists, and offered continued U.N. support to the refugees fleeing the violence. He also met with Iraq’s most revered and influential Shiite preacher, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, in Najaf.
“In this time of crisis, when we see the shocking treatment of minorities by [ISIS],” Sistani “continues to preach peace, love and unity among all” Iraqis, Ban said.