Nation & World

Iraqis agree on parliament speaker, first step in forming a government

Iraqi lawmakers took a step toward breaking their political deadlock Tuesday, voting for a new parliament speaker in the first step of a government formation process that analysts warn is unfolding too slowly to keep the country from fragmenting along ethnic and sectarian lines.

It remained unclear, however, whether the overwhelming approval of Sunni Muslim politician Salim al Jubouri, a moderate Islamist with a background in law, as speaker signaled a broader power-sharing deal between the Shiite Muslim political bloc of Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki and his Sunni, Kurdish and Shiite detractors.

Maliki, who’s served in a caretaker capacity since elections in April, is seeking a third four-year term, but he faces heavy criticism over policies that are blamed for hardening sectarian divisions, weakening the U.S.-trained security forces and allowing the al Qaida splinter group known as the Islamic State to seize large swaths of Iraqi territory.

Though his State of Law coalition won the most seats in the April polls, Maliki is finding it hard to build the alliances necessary to keep his hold on power. Even his longtime supporters in Washington signal that he’s become too politically radioactive and should go; the Obama administration insists on seeing a more inclusive government before committing more military aid.

The political system established under the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq calls for a Shiite prime minister, a Sunni parliament speaker and a Kurdish president. Haggling over the posts is part of the process, only this time the stakes are much higher, with the Islamic State encroaching on the capital and the Kurds moving toward independence.

The tensions were evident in Tuesday’s voting session, with rival politicians making outbursts and trading accusations. Tallying the votes was a protracted endeavor that involved marks scribbled on a white dry-erase board, one by one, on live television. For much of the session, local channels switched to cooking shows and soap operas until the results were announced.

On the military front, Maliki’s government has shown little to no progress in reasserting state control since the army collapsed during the Islamic State’s northern offensive in early June. On Tuesday, the military announced a new offensive of its own, an operation dubbed “Sharp Sword,” aimed at routing the Sunni extremists and their allied insurgents from the northern city of Tikrit.

The remnants of the army, backed by militias and other irregulars, already have failed several times to recapture Tikrit, and analysts who monitor the conflict say they’re not sure how this time could yield success.

The government repeatedly has exaggerated its capabilities, despite recent U.S. and Iraqi reports that show that the military was all but wiped out last month. The reinforcements _ a hodgepodge of Shiite militias and tribesmen _ often lack training and central leadership, making them an unlikely bulwark against an enemy that’s amassed a staggering arsenal by taking over garrisons.

Ahmed Ali, the lead Iraq researcher at the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War, which puts out daily battlefield updates, said Iraqi forces were finding it difficult to fight in urban terrain that the Sunni insurgents had heavily booby-trapped. The roads into Tikrit are sown with homemade bombs.

Ali said Iraqi security forces were focusing on Tikrit now in part to divert the extremists’ capabilities from fronts closer to Baghdad and in part because they needed a “launching point” from which they could go after other Islamic State-controlled areas, such as Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city. However, Ali warned, the battle for Tikrit is only beginning.

“This is an example for how difficult it will be to reclaim Mosul or other urban centers,” Ali said. “It’s not an easy fight.”