Political crisis persists in Iraq as fighting takes its toll

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BAGHDAD — Iraq's new parliament Monday put off its next session for five weeks, extending the country's political paralysis amid a Sunni Islamist insurgency that claimed the life of an army general near Baghdad.

Citing the politicians’ failure to reach “understanding and agreement” on nominations for the top three posts in government, the office of acting Speaker Mehdi al-Hafidh said parliament would not meet again until Aug. 12.

Putting off the work of reaching consensus is a slap in the face to efforts by Iraq's Shiite clergy, the United States, the United Nations and Iran, who have all urged the swift formation of an inclusive government to hold the country together.

“We're looking at a dire situation on the ground, which is why it's so important that things move forward urgently on the ground,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters in Washington in reaction to the delay.

With no signs that Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki will abandon his bid for a third term, his Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish opponents warn that there is a risk that Iraq will fragment along ethnic and sectarian lines. “Things are moving faster than the politicians can make decisions,” a senior Shiite member of parliament said.

The Islamic State, which is an al-Qaida offshoot, and a patchwork of Sunni insurgents are holding territory they seized in northern and western Iraq, the majority of it taken last month.

Kurds, who run their own autonomous region in northern Iraq, have taken advantage of the chaos to expand their territory.

Mr. Maliki's opponents blame him for last month's defeats and want him to step aside. They accuse him of favoring the Shiite majority over the Sunni and Kurdish minorities.

Some hopes remained that parliament would meet again this month, based on local press comments by Mr. Hafidh and other comments by a senior U.S. official. Brett McGurk, deputy assistant secretary of state for Iraq, said on his Twitter feed that Mr. Hafidh had clarified that the new date for parliament to resume work was July 13 — next Sunday. But parliament would still be required to issue a formal statement to change the date.

Mr. Maliki last week said he hoped to overcome the challenges blocking formation of a new government after the new parliament's first session ended without agreement on the top posts of prime minister, president and parliament speaker.

The Iraqi military, backed by Shiite militias and volunteers, has yet to take back any major cities but is trying to advance on Tikrit, the late dictator Saddam Hussein's hometown in Salahuddin province. The fighting is taking a heavy toll. The United Nations last week said more than 2,400 Iraqis had been killed in June alone, making the month by far the deadliest since the height of sectarian warfare during the U.S. “surge” offensive in 2007.

A senior Iraqi general was killed Monday in fighting with insurgents near Baghdad, as the army fights to hold militants back from the capital. Maj. Gen. Negm Abdullah Ali, commander of the army's 6th Division, which is responsible for defending part of Baghdad, was killed just 10 miles northwest of the capital.

A few hours later, four policemen and three civilians were killed by a suicide bomber at a checkpoint in the mainly Shiite Kadhimiya district of northern Baghdad. And a bomb exploding at a roadside outdoor cafe killed four people late Monday in the Nahrawan area just south of the capital, a police officer and a medic said.

Top U.S. defense officials last week said the security forces could defend the capital but would have difficulty going on the offensive to recapture lost territory, mainly because of logistic weaknesses.

In the northeastern province of Diyala, Islamic State militants killed four civilians in the town of Udaim, a police officer said.

Militants killed six civilians, including a woman and an elderly man, late Monday in the village of Zawiya, near the northern city of Baiji, when they tried to arrest a local police officer, an eyewitness said. According to the witness, Islamic State fighters accused the policeman, who escaped, of trying to form a force to rise up against the group.


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