Iraq parliament elects speaker as Tikrit push falters

BAGHDAD (AFP) - Iraq's sharply divided parliament elected a speaker Tuesday in a step towards the delayed formation of a new government, as a renewed bid to recapture Tikrit from militants ended in retreat.

World powers and Iraq's top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, have piled pressure on MPs to set aside their differences in the face of a jihadist-led offensive that has overrun swathes of territory north and west of Baghdad.

After two fruitless sessions earlier this month, MPs elected Salim al-Juburi as speaker, a post traditionally held by a Sunni Arab that must be filled before the process of forming a government can go ahead.

It was not immediately clear if his election was part of a package deal also involving the posts of president and prime minister, but Tuesday's progress suggested some type of agreement has been reached.

Lawmakers must now elect a president, who will then give the biggest bloc the first chance to form a government.

But in a sign of possible divisions within the dominant Shiite alliance, two rival candidates stood for the post of first deputy speaker.

Mr Juburi announced in televised remarks that candidates for president must be submitted within three days, and said parliament will next meet on July 23.

The United States Iraq for electing a new parliamentary speaker, calling it an important first step in forming a new government after extensive delays. US Sectary of State Joh Kerry said in satatement: "The election of a speaker is the first step in the critical process of forming a new government that can take into account the rights, aspirations, and legitimate concerns of all Iraq's communities," Kerry said in a statement. "We urge Iraq's leaders to follow this achievement with rapid formation of a new government pursuant to Iraq's constitutional timelines."

Earlier on Tuesday, security forces launched an attack on Tikrit, hometown of executed dictator Saddam Hussein, aiming to revitalise a counter-offensive that began more than two weeks ago but became bogged down south of the city.

They initially gained control of the southern part of the city, but later pulled back south of Tikrit after heavy fighting, officers and witnesses said.

A senior army officer attributed the withdrawal to the danger of fighting at night, saying that "Iraqi forces withdrew at the beginning of the night so that they would not be exposed to losses", but would return later.

However, any gains made in the city are likely to be offset by militants moving back in.

Tribesmen and security forces also battled militants in Dhuluiyah, just 80 kilometres north of Baghdad.

One fighter, Omar al-Juburi, said the army was spearheading the fighting in the north of the town while police and tribal militia were tackling militants in the south.

Jessica Lewis, a former US army intelligence officer who is now research director at the Institute for the Study of War, said holding Dhuluiyah could allow militants to isolate Samarra, a key city to the northwest.

The town could also be used as a staging area for attacks on major military bases, the neutralisation of which would "compromise the strategic defence of Baghdad from the north".

Violence also struck other areas on Tuesday, with attacks including two car bombs in Baghdad killing at least 23 people.

The fighting and bombings came a day after the Pentagon said US military teams sent to Iraq last month had completed their assessment of Iraqi security forces.

The details were not publicly released, but The New York Times reported that one conclusion was that only roughly half of Iraq's units are capable enough to be advised by US personnel, if the decision is taken to do so.

Though parliament has finally made progress, deep divisions remain over key appointments and other issues.

Ties between the Baghdad government and Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region have hit a new low, and Mr Maliki has pledged to seek a third term despite some lawmakers demanding he step aside.

Kurdish leaders have taken advantage of the collapse of federal security forces across northern and north-central Iraq to take control of a swathe of historically Kurdish majority territory outside the former boundaries of their autonomous region in the north.

Kurdish regional president Massud Barzani has called for a referendum on independence for the expanded region.

Mr Maliki has accused the Kurds of harbouring Sunni Arab militants, while the Kurds say Baghdad is unfairly withholding their share of oil revenues and have called for him to step down.

Mr Maliki, a Shiite Arab viewed by opponents as a divisive and sectarian leader, has refused to quit, despite eroding political support and thinly veiled calls for change from Washington.