Hopes that Iraqi politicians would rapidly form a new government to help counter the advance of Islamist gunmen and win U.S. help were dashed on Tuesday after Sunni Muslim and Kurdish members of the Iraqi Parliament walked out of what was to have been their first session since elections in April.
The failure to form a new government even as fighters from the Islamic State remained within striking distance of Baghdad hardened fears that the country’s leaders are unable to work together to keep Iraq from fragmenting under the pressure of an insurgency that thrives in the nation’s sectarian political climate.
U.S. officials have all but insisted on the replacement of Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, a Shiite Muslim who is seeking his third four-year term as premier, as the price for military assistance to beat back the Islamic State.
But whatever lobbying American officials had done seemed to have little effect. The debut of the newly elected Parliament was brief and tense, with sideline insults that led to walkouts by Kurdish and Sunni legislators. With its quorum gone, the session was adjourned until next week.
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That means Maliki remains in place for now as caretaker prime minister, much to the chagrin of opponents at home and abroad who criticize his governance as ineffectual, sectarian and increasingly autocratic.
In Washington, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest, asked how long the U.S. was prepared to wait for Iraq’s government to pull itself together, said, “It continues to be imperative that Iraq’s new leaders move forward with the extreme urgency that the current situation deserves.”
“There is a rather tenuous security situation in that country right now, but that tenuous security situation is not going to be resolved solely through military action,” he said, referring to U.S. calls for a new Iraqi government that includes disaffected Sunni Muslims. The United States has deployed 650 additional troops to Iraq since the Islamist gunmen seized control of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, on June 10, and has evacuated hundreds of employees from the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.
In a statement translated by the Reuters, one important Sunni critic of Maliki’s leadership said there was little hope for addressing the crisis without change at the top.
“If there is a new policy with a new prime minister, we will deal with them positively, otherwise the country will go from bad to worse,” said Osama al Nujaifi, a leading Sunni politician, former speaker of Parliament and strong foe of Maliki.
Meanwhile, the head of the radical Islamic State, whose fighters have overrun much of Iraq in the last three weeks, called on Islamists throughout the world to flock to Syria and Iraq to fight for the Muslim caliphate, which the Islamic State announced it had formed over the weekend.
In a message to mark the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which began over the weekend, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi said that all true Muslims should join the new caliphate, travel to the new state and help build an Islamic nation to replace what he called the unholy notions of nationalism and tribalism. The Internet posting referred to Baghdadi as the “prince of the faithful,” the historical term adopted by the top leader of the Islamic world.
“So let the world know that we are living today in a new era,” Baghdadi said in the five-page statement. “Whoever was heedless must now be alert. Whoever was sleeping must now awaken. Whoever was shocked and amazed must comprehend. The Muslims today have a loud, thundering statement, and possess heavy boots. They have a statement that will cause the world to hear and understand the meaning of terrorism, and boots that will trample the idol of nationalism, destroy the idol of democracy and uncover its deviant nature.”
Baghdadi provided a long list of nations where he said Muslims had been attacked or marginalized that included “China, India, Palestine, Somalia, the Arabian Peninsula, the Caucasus, the Levant, Egypt, Iraq, Indonesia, Afghanistan, the Philippines, Iran, Pakistan, Tunisia, Libya, Algeria and Morocco, in the East and in the West.” He criticized violence against Muslims in Burma and the Central African Republic and chastised France for its ban on women covering their faces.
“By Allah, we will take revenge,” he said. “Even if it takes a while, we will take revenge, and every amount of harm against the ummah (the Muslim people) will be responded to with multitudes more against the perpetrator.”
He also urged Muslims to help build the just announced caliphate by flocking to the region the Islamic State now controls, which stretches from Aleppo province in Syria nearly to Baghdad. “Syria is not for the Syrians, and Iraq is not for the Iraqis,” he said. “The State is a state for all Muslims.”
The international flavor of the budding caliphate was highlighted by the release of the speech in professional-quality translations in German, French, Arabic, English, Russian and Albanian.
The breakup of the Iraqi Parliament’s first session came over accusations by supporters of Maliki that Kurdish representatives already has abandoned the idea of a unified Iraq, citing, among other things, the fact that the Iraqi national flag is rarely seen in Kurdistan.
“The Iraqi flag is an honor above your head. Why do you take it down? The day will come when we will crush your heads,” Kadhim al Sayadi, a lawmaker in Maliki’s coalition, shouted at Kurdish lawmakers who had demanded that the central government resume paying salaries to the Kurdish region’s civil servants.
In another exchange overheard by witnesses, one unknown Arab lawmaker angrily denounced the Kurds’ selling of oil to Israel, the first shipment of which arrived in Israel June 20. Even before the current crisis, the Kurds had been locked in a bitter struggle with the central government over revenues from oil sales.
According to a United Nations report released Tuesday, 2,417 Iraqis died in violence in June, the highest monthly total in seven years. Of those, 886 were members of the Iraqi security forces and 1,531 were civilians. The totals did not include Anbar province, much of which gunmen allied with the Islamist State have controlled since last year.
McClatchy special correspondent Prothero reported from Irbil. Allam reported from Najaf, Iraq. Lesley Clark in Washington and McClatchy special correspondent Sahar Issa in Baghdad contributed.