Sunnis and Kurds abandoned the first meeting of Iraq's new parliament on Tuesday after Shias failed to name a prime minister to replace the polarizing Nouri al-Maliki, wrecking hopes that a unity government would be swiftly built to save Iraq from splitting apart at the hands of Al-Qaeda-inspired insurgents.
The United States, United Nations, Iran and Iraq's own Shia clergy have pushed hard for politicians to come up with an inclusive government to save the country as Sunni insurgents bear down on Baghdad. But with Shia failing to name a prime minister, Sunnis and Kurds refused to return from recess at the parliamentary chamber in the fortified "green zone" where they were meeting for the first time since an election in April.
Parliament is not likely to meet again for at least a week, leaving the country in a state of political limbo and Maliki clinging to power as a caretaker, rejected by Sunnis and Kurds.
The parliamentary session, in Baghdad's fortified "green zone," could end the eight-year rule of the hardline Shia prime minister, with foes determined to unseat him and even some allies saying he could be replaced by a less polarizing figure.
Iraqi troops have been battling for three weeks against fighters led by the armed Sunni group that recently renamed itself the Islamic State. The group has staged a lightning offensive these past weeks across much of northern and western Iraq as it presses towards Baghdad.
The United Nations said Tuesday that more than 2,400 Iraqis had been killed in June alone, making the current violence the most deadly since the height of sectarian warfare in 2007.
In a reminder of that conflict, several mortars fell near a Shia holy shrine in Samarra that was bombed in 2006, an event that unleashed a wave of sectarian bloodshed that left tens of thousands dead over the following two years. Various Shia militias as well as Iran have vowed a swift retaliation if Shia holy sites come under fire from the Sunni insurgents.
Washington, meanwhile, said Monday it was sending 300 more troops to Iraq on top of the military advisers previously dispatched by President Barack Obama.
U.S. Defense Department spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby said about 200 troops arrived in the country on Sunday to reinforce security at the U.S. Embassy, its support centers and Baghdad International Airport. A further 100 were due to move to Baghdad to "provide security and logistics support."
"These forces are separate and apart from the up to 300 personnel the president authorized to establish two joint operations centers and conduct an assessment of how the U.S. can provide additional support to Iraq's security forces," Kirby said in a statement.
The Islamic State, which rules a contiguous territory that arcs from Aleppo in Syria to the western edge of Baghdad in Iraq, over the weekend declared the restoration of an Islamic caliphate across the region. It named its leader, secretive guerrilla fighter Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, as "caliph," the historic title of the successors of the Prophet Mohammad who ruled the whole Muslim world.
IS have exploited and widened Iraq's sectarian cleavages. Other Iraqi Sunni armed groups who resent what they see as persecution under Maliki are backing the insurgency. Iraq’s Kurds, meanwhile, have defended their northern, oil-rich lands and now appear poised to make a play at secession.
The president of autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan, Massoud Barzani, told the BBC on Tuesday that Iraq was already “effectively partitioned” and the he planned to hold a referendum on Kurdish independence in the near future. “Everything that’s happened recently shows that it’s the right of Kurdistan to achieve independence,” Barzani said.
Iraqi lawmakers, meeting for the first time since being elected in April, stood on Tuesday at the arrival of Maliki, who shook hands with Saleh al-Mutlaq, a leading Sunni politician. Maliki also waved to Osama al-Nujaifi, the Sunni former speaker of the house and the premier's arch political rival.
But the prime minister's days in power could be numbered. Although Maliki's State of Law coalition won the most seats in the last elections, it still needs allies to govern.
Sunnis and Kurds say Maliki's aggressive promotion of Shia interests and broken promises of sharing power laid fertile ground for the rapid advance of the Sunni insurgents, who have taken the north's largest city of Mosul and nearly all Sunni areas of the country.
Whether Iraq can survive as a state most likely depends on whether politicians can sustain a governing system put in place after the U.S. invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003, under which the prime minister has always been a Shia, the largely symbolic president a Kurd and the speaker of parliament a Sunni.
On Friday, in an unusual political intervention, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's most senior Shia cleric and a figure known for his caution, called on political blocs to fill those three posts before parliament met on Tuesday. But that deadline appeared unlikely to be met.
Two senior members of Maliki's ruling coalition told Reuters that an alternative to the prime minister from within the State of Law bloc was being discussed. "He understands it might come to that," one senior Maliki ally told Reuters last week.
Maliki's own former chief of staff Tareq Najem is seen as a possible successor, diplomats say.
Still, many worry that a drawn-out process will waste precious time in confronting the insurgents, who have vowed to advance on Baghdad. A Shia lawmaker, speaking on condition of anonymity, said: "Things are bad. The political process is not commensurate with the speed of military developments."
Meanwhile, fighting raged in Saddam Hussein’s home city of Tikrit on Tuesday.
The army attempted last week to take back Tikrit but could not recapture the city, 100 miles north of Baghdad, where Islamic State fighters machine-gunned scores of soldiers in shallow graves after capturing it on June 12.
Al Jazeera and Reuters