Iraq`s Sunnis pick parliament speaker as battles rage

Iraq`s Sunni Arab politicians picked a candidate for the post of parliamentary speaker on Saturday, an achievement that could revive stalled efforts to form a new government after April polls.

Baghdad: Iraq`s Sunni Arab politicians picked a candidate for the post of parliamentary speaker on Saturday, an achievement that could revive stalled efforts to form a new government after April polls.

The United Nations warned Saturday that Iraq`s deeply-divided politicians must quickly form a government or risk descent into "chaos", as security forces beat back one militant assault but lost ground elsewhere.

Iraqi MPs are to hold a parliament session Sunday to hasten the appointment of a parliamentary speaker, president and premier, in the hope that new leadership can better counter a sweeping jihadist-led militant offensive that began last month.

"Elections were held in which doctor Salim al-Juburi won the confidence of the lawmakers present, and he was confirmed as the Sunni bloc`s candidate for speaker of parliament," a statement from parliament`s United for Change Sunni grouping said.

By convention, the role of head of parliament is awarded to Iraq`s minority Sunnis, the post of president to the Kurds and premiership reserved for Iraq`s majority Shiites.

The statement was sent on behalf of a wider meeting of Sunni lawmakers, who also pledged not to accept incumbent premier Nuri al-Maliki for a third term.

Such a condition could be a stumbling block in forming a new government, given Maliki`s vow earlier this month to never give up on his candidacy for another turn as Iraqi leader.

The previous session of parliament earlier this month ended in mayhem, with MPs trading insults and threats. Too few returned to the chamber after a break meant to cool tempers and the quorum needed to proceed with a vote was lost.

UN envoy Nickolay Mladenov warned Iraqi politicians that "failure to move forward on electing a new speaker, a new president and a new government risks plunging the country into chaos".

"It will only serve the interests of those who seek to divide the people of Iraq and destroy their chances for peace and prosperity," he said.Attendance could be a problem, with parliament not even able to reach a quorum for an emergency session called at the height of the militant offensive last month.

Abdulsalam al-Maliki, an MP from Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki`s list, said any member of the Shiite National Alliance who stays away is siding with "the enemies of Iraq."

In Anbar province, security forces backed by tribal fighters held off a major attack by militants on Haditha, a town northwest of Baghdad made strategic by the large nearby dam and its oil refinery.

The attack on Haditha, located on the road linking militant-held western areas and the provincial capital Ramadi, began with mortar fire, police said.

Gunmen travelling in vehicles, including some captured from security forces, then attacked from two sides but were kept from entering the town in fighting that left 13 militants and four police dead, officers and a doctor said.

Previous attacks on Haditha were of a smaller scale and the capture of the dam by the militants would raise the prospect of it being used to cut water or flood areas downstream, as happened earlier this year elsewhere in Anbar.

In Diyala province, meanwhile, security forces and civilian volunteers Saturday launched a push to retake militant-held areas north of Muqdadiyah, a town on a main road to provincial capital Baquba, a police captain said.

But in a setback for government forces, militants overran the Shiite-majority towns of Al-Tawakul and Al-Zarkush in the province, displacing local residents, witnesses said.

In Jalawla, another Diyala town, Kurdish peshmerga fighters began a major operation to expel militants from areas they hold, a senior Kurdish officer said.Major General Hussein Mansur said Kurdish forces were using tanks and artillery in the battle, and had succeeded in retaking territory from the militants.

Security forces folded during the initial offensive led by the Islamic State jihadist group, prompting the government to announce that it would arm civilian volunteers, thousands of whom have since signed up.

While security forces have since improved, they are still struggling to make significant gains in offensive operations, and a major push to retake executed dictator Saddam Hussein`s hometown Tikrit has made little progress in more than two weeks.

As federal security forces quit their posts in northern areas during the initial fighting, Iraqi Kurds took control of a swathe of disputed territory that they have long wanted to incorporate into their autonomous region over Baghdad`s strong objections.

They have kept areas from being overrun by militants, but the move has caused a major escalation in tensions between the Kurdish region and the federal government.

Kurdish authorities on Friday laid claim to disputed northern oilfields in a move slammed by Baghdad, further raising the stakes.

The Baghdad-Kurd row has dimmed the prospects of significant progress in forming a new government when parliament meets on Sunday.

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