Iraq PM vows to 'never give up' on third term bid

BAGHDAD (AFP) - Iraq's premier insisted on Friday he would "never give up" seeking a third term despite allegations at home and abroad of sectarianism and authoritarianism amid a sweeping jihadist-led offensive.

At least 15 people were killed in a suicide attack on Iraqi forces south of Samarra, a mostly Sunni city that also houses one of the Shiite Islam's holiest shrines and is a main front line in the weeks-old crisis. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's remarks came after a farcical parliament session in which Iraq's various factions - many of which strongly oppose him staying - failed to unite and choose a speaker, sparking international criticism and from the country's top Shiite religious leader.

But in a rare piece of good news in the weeks since the jihadist-led militant offensive began, 46 Indian nurses caught up in the conflict were freed and headed home. With parliament next due to meet Tuesday and Mr Maliki facing widespread criticism over the onslaught that has overrun swathes of five provinces, he insisted he would fight to retain his job.

"I will never give up on my candidacy for the post of prime minister," Mr Maliki said in a statement. He 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 Mr Osama al-Nujaifi, the speaker in the previous parliament, announced he would not seek a new tenure, in a move seen as removing a key obstacle to Mr Maliki's ouster despite the two men being rivals.

Deputies need to choose a speaker and then elect a president before they can move on to forming a government, and the key question of a possible Maliki third term. Under a de facto agreement, the speaker is a Sunni Arab, the premier a Shiite Arab and the president a Kurd.

Iraq's most revered Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani on Friday criticised the failure to pick a speaker, with his spokesman calling it 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 UN envoy Nickolay Mladenov, who had warned that a failure to form a government would lead to "Syria-like chaos".

Mr Maliki's remarks highlighted the disunity between Iraq's major political blocs, which have been urged to come together and quickly form a government to help repel militant groups led by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) jihadist group. While government forces and allied Shiite fighters have performed more capably than in the initial days of the advance, they have struggled since to regain ground, with an assault on Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit in particular having lasted more than a week.

On Friday evening, a suicide bomber blew up an explosives-rigged car at a security position near Samarra, like Tikrit in Salaheddin province, killing at least 15 people.

Samarra, 15 kilometres north of where the attack took place, is home to the revered Shiite Al-Askari shrine, which was bombed in February 2006, sparking a bloody Sunni-Shiite sectarian war.

Elsewhere, militants killed three Kurdish security personnel in an attack on a checkpoint in Diyala province, northeast of Baghdad. And in a sign of still-persistent divisions elsewhere, Kurdish leader Massud Barzani called 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 met Mr 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 IS, 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 Friday, meanwhile, 46 Indian nurses who have been trapped in Iraq by the crisis were freed and were to return to their homeland. The nurses, who were working at a hospital in Tikrit when the offensive began last month, were later transferred by anti-government fighters to the insurgent-held city of Mosul before finally being released on Friday.