BAGHDAD - A crucial parliament session kickstarting the government formation process was delayed and shelling killed a general on Monday, as solutions to Iraq’s worst crisis in years appeared increasingly distant.
The developments highlighted bickering among political leaders despite calls for unity to counter a jihadist-led offensive that has overrun swathes of territory and which the security forces have struggled to repel.
The swift advance has displaced hundreds of thousands, alarmed the international community and heaped pressure on Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki as he seeks a third term in office.
But the government formation process, which international leaders and Iraq’s top Shia cleric have urged be expedited, was dealt a blow when a parliament session scheduled for Tuesday was postponed.
Officials and a lawmaker, all speaking on condition of anonymity, said the meeting was rescheduled for August 12 because MPs could not agree on a new speaker.
More than two months after elections in which Maliki’s camp won the most seats, though not a majority, parliament has yet to begin choosing the country’s top three positions.
A session last week ended in chaos, with MPs trading heckles and threats before some eventually walked out, forcing an adjournment. The UN’s special envoy warned that further delays risked plunging the country into “Syria-like chaos”.
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 weapons and uniforms as militants led by the Islamic State (IS) jihadist group conquered second city Mosul and advanced to within about 80 kilometres (50 miles) of Baghdad.
But while Iraq has received equipment, intelligence and help on the ground from the United States, Russia, Iran and even Shia militias it once shunned, government efforts to battle the militant offensive were dealt a blow when a senior general was killed on Monday.
Major General Najm Abdullah al-Sudani, commander of the army’s 6th division, was killed by “hostile shelling” in Ibrahim bin Ali, Lieutenant General Qassem Atta told AFP by text message.
Ibrahim bin Ali is in the Abu Ghraib area, just west of Baghdad, near where security forces have been locked in a months-long standoff with militants who have seized the city of Fallujah.
Security forces have for more than a week also tried to retake Tikrit from a loose alliance of IS fighters, other jihadist groups and former Saddam Hussein loyalists, but have so far failed to do so.
Iraqi forces have been hamstrung by a lack of combat experience and dearth of intelligence in Sunni areas, largely over distrust of the authorities among minority Arabs, analysts say. “The army and the police are seen as sectarian... and therefore the Sunni community doesn’t provide support or, crucially, intelligence to the security forces,” said John Drake of the AKE Group security company. “If you don’t have good intelligence on the ground, your strikes are not precise, they involve collateral damage and casualties... making everything worse.”
While most observers have argued Baghdad is not about to fall, violence there has continued.
In the latest attack, a suicide bomber struck the northern entrance to the Kadhimiyah area on Monday, killing at least five people and wounding at least 13, officials said. And an IS-linked Twitter account posted a picture purported to be of another suicide bomber, who killed four people at a Baghdad cafe on Sunday, posing in front of a black Islamic flag before his operation, holding a sword and surrounded by assault rifles and rocket launchers. The authenticity of the image could not immediately be verified.
And while government forces were still looking for a major victory, IS jihadists appeared to be brimming with confidence.
A few days after declaring the establishment of a “caliphate”, the group’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi stepped out of the shadows to deliver a Friday sermon in Mosul’s largest mosque.
Analysts have described the sudden public appearance by the self-proclaimed “caliph” — second only to Al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri on the US most wanted list — as a daring stunt reinforcing Baghdadi’s status as the new strongman in the world of global jihad.