Iraqi lawmakers broke two weeks of deadlock Tuesday and elected a moderate Sunni as speaker of parliament, taking the first step toward forming a new government that is widely seen as crucial to confronting insurgents who have overrun much of the country.
Still, it was not clear whether lawmakers had reached a larger deal that would also include an agreement on the most contentious decision — the choice for prime minister. The incumbent, Nouri al-Maliki, has ruled the country since 2006, but is under intense pressure to step aside. So far, he has insisted on staying for a third term.
After voting behind closed doors, the legislature tallied the results on a whiteboard wheeled into the hall that showed Sunni lawmaker Salim al-Jubouri winning with 194 votes out of 273 cast in the 328-seat parliament. A second candidate, Shorooq al-Abayachi, received 19 votes. There were 60 abstentions.
“Today’s step demonstrates the country’s democracy and national unity,” said Shiite lawmaker Abbas al-Bayati, putting a decidedly positive spin on a vote that was delayed twice. “We have now a legislative body that can do its job in building democracy.”
Lawmakers broke into applause after al-Jubouri passed the 165-vote threshold needed to win the post, and some of his colleagues padded over to offer their congratulations.
According to the constitution, parliament now has 30 days to elect a president, who will then have 15 days to ask the leader of the largest bloc in the legislature to form a government. Then a prime minister will be picked.
Secretary of State John Kerry welcomed the election of a speaker and two deputies, and urged Iraq’s leaders “to follow this achievement with rapid formation of a new government.”
“Iraq faces an existential threat and Iraq’s leaders need to confront that threat with the urgency that it demands,” Kerry said.
After appearing on the verge of collapse, Iraq’s security forces have stiffened while the insurgent offensive has eased, leading to relative stabilization on the front lines.
The military opened a counter-offensive against the insurgent-held city of Tikrit more than two weeks ago, but has failed to make any major advance into the city itself.