Iraq's premier insisted today he would "never give up" on a third term despite allegations at home and abroad of sectarianism and authoritarianism amid a sweeping jihadist-led offensive.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's remarks came after a farcical parliament session in which Iraq's various factions-many of which strongly oppose Maliki staying in power-failed to unite and choose a speaker of parliament, sparking criticism from the international community and the country's top Shiite religious leader.
With parliament next due to meet on Tuesday and Maliki facing widespread criticism for a militant advance that has overrun swathes of five provinces, the premier insisted he would fight to retain his job.
"I will never give up on my candidacy for the post of prime minister," Maliki said in a statement. The incumbent said that because his bloc won the most seats in April 30 elections, it retained the right to nominate the premier, and insisted rival groups had "no right" to impose conditions on the final selection.
Earlier Osama al-Nujaifi, who held the speaker's position in the previous parliament, announced he would not seek a new tenure, in a move seen as removing a key obstacle to Maliki's ouster despite the fact that the two men are rivals. "The goal of change demands sacrifice, and I am willing to do this for the sake of my nation, its people and the future of my country," said Nujaifi, long a virulent critic of the premier.
Deputies need to choose a speaker and then elect a president before they can move on to the formation of a government, and the key question of a possible third term for Maliki.
Under a de facto agreement, the speaker is typically a Sunni Arab, the prime minister a Shiite Arab and the president a Kurd. Maliki's remarks indicated the level of disunity between Iraq's major political blocs, which have been urged to come together and quickly form a government to help repel militant groups who, despite their offensive having stalled, retain large chunks of territory.
It came after a chaotic opening to parliament last Tuesday when lawmakers failed to choose a new speaker and deputies exchanged threats before walking out.
Iraq's most revered Shiite cleric today criticised the failure to pick a speaker, with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani's spokesman saying during a prayer sermon that it marked a "regrettable failure."
"The speeding up of forming a government within the constitutional framework with wide national consensus is of the utmost importance," Ahmed al-Safi added. He was echoing earlier remarks from UN envoy Nickolay Mladenov, who warned that a failure to form a government would lead to "Syria-like chaos."
Octogenarian Sistani is revered by Iraq's Shiite majority and his stature dwarfs that of any single politician.
But in a sign of still-persistent divisions, Iraqi Kurdish leader Massud Barzani called on Thursday on his autonomous region's lawmakers to speed up work on an independence referendum. Washington reacted coolly to that, with White House spokesman Josh Earnest saying the United States continues "to believe that Iraq is stronger if it is united." US Vice President Joe Biden has met Barzani's chief of staff and stressed the "importance of forming a new government in Iraq that will pull together all communities" to combat the Islamic State (IS), the group leading the insurgent drive, the White House said.
The Kurds' long-held statehood dream, which Baghdad opposes, has been advanced by one of Iraq's worst political and security crises since the US-led invasion which ousted dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003. Kurdish forces have moved in to take control of the disputed northern city of Kirkuk and a swathe of surrounding territory that the regional government wants to incorporate.
On the ground, Iraqi forces were struggling to break the stalemate. Security forces entered Awja, Saddam's birthplace, after fierce clashes but the government had yet to reclaim the nearby city of Tikrit despite a more than week-long offensive. Elsewhere, militants killed three Kurdish security personnel in an attack on a checkpoint in Diyala province, northeast of Baghdad.
The cost of the conflict has been high for Iraq's forces. Nearly 900 security personnel were among 2,400 people killed in June, the highest figure in years, according to the United Nations.