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Iraq politicians back down over government delays

AFP , Tuesday 8 Jul 2014
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Iraq's politicians agreed to meet next Sunday after delays to the formation of a new government outraged Iraqis exasperated by political polarisation and fearful of a brutal Sunni militant offensive.

It was unclear what prompted the about-turn after lawmakers initially said they would postpone a crucial parliament session for a month, but the delay was met with widespread criticism both from their constituents and from international leaders.

The month-old crisis has seen a jihadist-led alliance overrun large swathes of northern and north-central Iraq, displacing hundreds of thousands of people and piling pressure on Nuri al-Maliki as he seeks a third term as prime minister.

With a farcical opening session having ended in disarray last week, and MPs having failed to carry out their constitutional duty to elect a speaker, lawmakers announced they would next meet on August 12, which would have been more than three months after their election.

They later backed down, with the interim speaker scheduling their next meeting for Sunday, but the initial decision nevertheless angered ordinary Iraqis.

"The postponement of the parliamentary session was a shock to Iraqis living amid a sea of blood and a lack of services and jobs," said Essam al-Bayati, a professor at the University of Kirkuk in northern Iraq.

A Baghdad grocer who gave his name as Abu Moussa said: "We have a crisis, and this postponement for calculations and deals between politicians is the biggest betrayal of the Iraqi people who went out to vote for them."

Though the constitution calls for the parliament speaker, president and prime minister to be chosen in a sequence over a maximum of 45 days, in practice political leaders normally agree the posts in a package.

In a de facto agreement that has emerged following previous elections, the speaker is a Sunni Arab, the premier a Shiite Arab and the president a Kurd.

Despite telling AFP in a 2011 interview he would not seek a third term, Maliki vowed last week he would not bow to mounting international and domestic pressure to step aside and allow a broader consensus.

Iraqi forces have largely regrouped after the debacle that saw soldiers abandon their positions and, in some cases, even their weapons and uniforms as jihadist-led militants conquered the second city of Mosul and advanced to within 80 kilometres (50 miles) of Baghdad.

But while Iraq has received support, including equipment, intelligence and advisers from the United States, Russia, Iran and even Shiite militias it once shunned, efforts to battle the militant offensive were dealt a blow when a senior general was killed on Monday.

Staff Major General Najm Abdullah al-Sudani, commander of the army's 6th division, was killed west of Baghdad, near where security forces have been locked in a more than six-month standoff with militants who hold the city of Fallujah.

For more than a week, government forces have also tried to retake the Sunni stronghold of Tikrit from a loose alliance of Islamic State fighters, other jihadist groups and former Saddam Hussein loyalists, but have so far failed to do so.

Air strikes carried out in Salaheddin province, centred on Tikrit, and Nineveh province, centred on Mosul, on Sunday and Monday killed 28 people, many of them said to have been civilians.

The security forces have been hamstrung by a lack of combat experience and a dearth of intelligence in Sunni areas, the result of widespread distrust of the Shiite-led authorities among minority Sunni Arabs, analysts say.

While most observers have argued Baghdad is not about to fall, violence in the capital has continued.

In the latest attack, a suicide bomber struck the northern entrance to the Shiite shrine district of Kadhimiyah on Monday, killing at least five people and wounding at least 13, officials said.

And with government forces still looking for a major victory, the jihadists of the Islamic State appeared to be brimming with confidence.

A few days after declaring the establishment of a "caliphate", the group's leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi -- second only to Al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri on the US most wanted list -- stepped out of the shadows to deliver a Friday sermon in Mosul's largest mosque.

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