Iraqi lawmakers elected a veteran Kurdish politician as the nation's new president Thursday, just hours after an attack on a prison convoy killed dozens of people, brutally underscoring the challenges faced by the country's leaders as they struggle to form a new government.
The 76-year-old Fouad Massoum, one of the founders of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan party led by Iraq's previous President Jalal Talabani, accepted the mostly ceremonial position after winning two-thirds of the votes in parliament, noting the "huge security, political and economic tasks" facing the next government.
Massoum's election comes as Iraq is facing its worst crisis since the 2011 withdrawal of U.S. troops amid the blitz offensive last month by armed members of Islamic State, a group that has captured large swaths of land in the country's west and north, including Iraq's second largest city of Mosul. The fighters have also seized a huge chunk of territory straddling the Iraq-Syria border, and have declared a self-styled caliphate in the territory they control.
Iraq's large, U.S.-trained and -equipped military melted away in the face of the Islamic State onslaught, sapping morale and public confidence in its ability to stem the tide, let alone claw back lost ground.
Underlining the violence confronting the new president, two car bombs exploded in Baghdad hours after his election, killing 21 people and injuring many more. The bombs targeted the central area of Karradah, as people were gathering to break their daily fast in the month of Ramadan.
And hours before Massoum was selected, fighters fired mortar shells at an army base where suspects facing terrorism charges were being held in Taji, about 12 miles north of Baghdad. Fearing a jailbreak, authorities evacuated the facilities, officials said.
But as the prisoners were being bused through an area nearby, fighters attacked again, this time with roadside bombs, igniting a gun battle that left 52 prisoners and eight soldiers dead, the officials said, adding that another eight soldiers and seven prisoners were wounded.
The vote for president — a post previously held by ailing Kurdish leader Talabani — is widely viewed as a step toward achieving consensus among political rivals, seen as necessary for tackling the deteriorating security crisis.
Massoum is considered a soft-spoken moderate, known for keeping good relations with Sunni and Shiite Arab politicians.
The next step in Iraq's political transition will be for Massoum, who has already officially assumed the title of president, to select a candidate for prime minister to try to form a new government.
Salim al-Jabouri, Iraq's new speaker of parliament, said at a press conference following the vote that Massoum should "use his constitutional powers to choose a candidate [for prime minister] from the largest political bloc."
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's bloc won the most seats in April elections, but he has faced mounting pressure to step aside, with critics accusing him of monopolizing power and alienating the country's Sunni and Kurdish minorities, contributing to the latest unrest.
Maliki has however vowed to remain in the post he has held since 2006.
U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon arrived in Baghdad earlier Thursday, urging lawmakers to "find a common ground" so they can address the crisis sparked by the rapid advance of the Islamic State extremist group and allied Sunni militants across much of northern and western Iraq last month.
At a press conference with Maliki, Ban said Iraq is facing an "existential threat," but one that could be overcome if it forms a "thoroughly inclusive government."
Under an unofficial agreement dating back to the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, the presidency is held by a Kurd while the prime minister is Shiite and the parliament speaker is Sunni.
Speaking alongside the U.N. secretary-general, Maliki said he is committed to quickly forming a government.
"Despite the fact that we have problems … we are moving at a confident pace to implement the mechanisms of the democratic work," Maliki said.
Al Jazeera and The Associated Press