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Threats fly at Iraq parliament session

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REUTERS

Members of the newly elected Iraqi parliament attend a session at the Parliament headquarters in Baghdad. Picture: Stringer

Iraq's new parliament, charged with approving a new government and facing a blistering offensive by Sunni militants, descended into chaos on Tuesday, with some lawmakers threatening each other and others walking out.

Despite calls from world leaders and senior clerics for Iraq's fractious politicians to unite, deputies failed to fulfil the constitutional requirement of electing a speaker and the first session of the parliament elected in April ended in disarray.

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's bid for a third term has been battered by the militant offensive which has seen large chunks of five provinces fall out of government control, on top of persistent allegations of sectarianism and consolidation of power.

The weeks-long crisis has alarmed world leaders, displaced hundreds of thousands of people and polarised Iraq's Shi'a, Sunni and Kurdish populations.

The disunity quickly manifested itself in the parliament session, which included walkouts, verbal threats and widespread confusion over the country's constitution.

Kurdish lawmaker Najiba Najib initially interrupted efforts to select a new parliament speaker, calling on the central government to “end the blockade” and send withheld budget funds to the autonomous Kurdish region.

Kadhim al-Sayadi, a lawmaker in Maliki's bloc, responded by threatening to “crush the heads” of Iraq's Kurds.

Several Sunni MPs also walked out of the chamber when mention was made of the Islamic State (IS) jihadist group, which is spearheading the militant offensive.

After a brief recess called to restore order, several lawmakers did not return, leaving the session no longer quorate.

Eventually, Mahdi Hafez, the MP presiding over the session, said parliament would reconvene on July 8 if political leaders are able to reach a deal on senior posts.

As part of a de facto agreement in place following previous elections, the prime minister is a Shi'a Arab, the speaker a Sunni Arab and the president a Kurd. All three posts are typically chosen in tandem.

Maliki increasingly looks to be on the way out, facing criticism from senior leaders in all three major communities over allegations of sectarianism, sidelining partners and a marked deterioration in security which culminated in the launch on June 9 of the militant offensive.

But the incumbent nevertheless retains a chance, having won by far the most seats in April 30 parliamentary elections.

“This has become a much more competitive race for the premiership position,” said Ayham Kamel, Middle East and North Africa director for the Eurasia Group consultancy.

“The broad direction here is to be more inclusive, at least when it comes to the Sunni community, and figure out a power-sharing deal.”

Though the vast majority of Iraq's Sunni Arab minority do not actively support militants, analysts say their anger over alleged mistreatment by the Shi'a-led authorities means they are less likely to cooperate with the security forces, fostering an environment in which militancy can flourish.

Kamel noted that any military successes on the ground could boost Maliki's chances, with thousands of troops taking part in an ambitious operation aimed at retaking executed dictator Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit, which fell on June 11.

Iraqi forces initially wilted in the face of the onslaught but have since performed more capably, with security officials touting apparent progress in recapturing the city.

They have nevertheless suffered heavy casualties in the past few weeks, with nearly 900 security personnel among the 2,400 people who died in June, the highest such figure in years, according to the UN.

The security forces are battling militants led by the IS jihadist group, which on Sunday declared a “caliphate”, an Islamic form of government last seen under the Ottoman Empire, and ordered Muslims worldwide to pledge allegiance to their chief.

Though the move may not have immediate significant impact on the ground, it is an indicator of the group's confidence and marks a move against al-Qaeda, from which it broke away, in particular.

Iraq has appealed for the US to carry out air strikes against the jihadists, but Washington, which further bolstered security at its embassy on Monday, has so far not acceded, and has said that planned deliveries of F-16 fighter jets could even be delayed.

Baghdad has meanwhile recently purchased more than a dozen Russian warplanes to bolster its fledgling air force as it takes the fight to militants holding a string of towns and cities. - AFP


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