BAGHDAD: The Iraqi parliament's Sunni blocs have agreed on a candidate for the post of parliament speaker, paving the way for the legislature to take the first formal step toward forming a new government.
The legislature is scheduled to meet Sunday amid pressure to quickly agree on new leadership that can hold the country together in the face of a Sunni militant offensive. Lawmakers failed to make any progress in parliament's first session on electing a new speaker, president and prime minister, and deadlock prompted the second session to be postponed until Sunday.
Sunni lawmaker Mohammed al-Karbooli said in a statement late Saturday that Sunni parties decided on Salim al-Jubouri as their nominee for speaker. He said al-Jubouri promised not to support a third term for embattled Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who is under pressure to step aside.
Under an informal arrangement that took hold after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, the speaker's chair goes to a Sunni, the presidency to a Kurd and the prime minister's post to a Shiite.
If parliament has a quorum Sunday, it could vote on al-Jubouri's nomination.
But in the past, Iraq's Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish political blocs have agreed to all three posts ahead of time as a sort of package deal. It was unclear whether political leaders would insist on a similar arrangement this time around.
According to the constitution, parliament will have 30 days after choosing a new speaker to elect a president, who will then have 15 days to ask the leader of the majority in the 328-seat legislature to form a government. Then a prime minister will be picked.
The Sunni militant blitz that has swept across much of northern and western Iraq over the past month threatens to divide Iraq along ethnic and sectarian lines. The insurgents are led by the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria extremist group, which has declared the establishment of an Islamic state ruled by Shariah law in the territory it has seized straddling the Iraq- Syria border.
But in Iraq, the jihadi group has been joined by an array of other Sunni militant factions, including the Army of the Men of the Naqshbandi Order - a collection of former members of Saddam Hussein's now-outlawed Baath party.
An audio recording purportedly from Naqshbandi leader Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri surfaced overnight, in which he hailed the militants' "historic victories" in recent weeks and reserved special praise for ISIS.
"Our great Iraqi people along with their brave forces have achieved a great victory through a tough and bloody struggle since more than 11 years," the man reported to be al-Douri said in the nearly 15-minute recording. The authenticity of the recording could not be immediately confirmed, though it sounded like previous recordings made of al-Douri.
The fugitive al-Douri is the highest-ranking member of Saddam's toppled government who escaped the 2003 U.S.-led invasion and eluded security forces ever since. He is believed to have a significant role in the Naqshbandi Army, which proudly touts Saddam-era symbols on its website.
He was the "king of clubs" in the deck of playing cards issued by the U.S. to help troops identify the most-wanted members of Saddam's regime.
In the recording, he said the "liberation" of Ninevah and Salahuddin provinces, which the militants overran last month, and the ongoing fighting in Anbar, Diyala and Taamim provinces as well as the outskirts of Baghdad marked a "historic and great turning point in the nation's march of jihad to achieve its freedom and unity and to build prosperous future for coming generations."
He praised the tribal leaders and other militant groups who have taken part in the fighting, but especially "the heroes and the knights of Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State [ISIS], to whom I send a special salutation full of appreciation and love."
The man purported to be al-Douri rejected Iraq's political process, calling it "dirty" and "a conspiracy" to serve the interests of the regional Shiite power, Iran.
"On that basis, all those who have their hands contaminated with this dirty process must abandon it and its supporters, repent and to join the revolutionaries," he said.
Iran has maintained close ties with successive Shiite-led governments in Iraq since the ouster of Saddam Hussein, a Sunni who oppressed the Shiites.