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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 17 December 2018

Iraq parliament elects Sunni MP Mohammed Al Halbousi as speaker

Election marks first step towards forming a new government after May 12 election

Iraq's new parliament failed to elect a speaker during its first session on September 3, 2018. AFP
Iraq's new parliament failed to elect a speaker during its first session on September 3, 2018. AFP

Iraq's parliament elected Sunni politician Mohammed Al Halbousi as speaker on Saturday, the first step towards forming a new government four months after the general election.

Parliament was to have elected a speaker and two deputies during its first meeting on September 3 but failed to do so as the proceedings were marred by political wrangling as competing blocs jockeyed to gain majority support.

Mr Al Halbousi was the nominee of a pro-Iran list, signalling that it is likely to have the votes to lead the next government.

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Ahmed Al Assadi, an MP and spokesman for the Fatah coalition, said 169 MPs voted for Mr Halbousi and 89 voted for former defence minister Khalid Al Obeidi.

The Fatah bloc is led by Hadi Al Ameri, commander of the Iran-backed Hashed Al Shaabi militias that helped the Iraqi security forces defeat ISIS.

Mr Al Halbousi was governor of the Sunni-majority province of Anbar, one of the main battlegrounds of the war against ISIS, until he was elected to parliament in the May 12 polls.

Mr Al Obeidi, who was backed by outgoing Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi, appeared to suggest the speaker's position had been bought.

“Let the corrupt families in parliament rejoice and exchange their congratulations with the bribe of 30 million dollars,” he wrote on Twitter.

“My message to the Iraqi people is God is with you.”

Mr Al Abadi had been seeking to continue in office as prime minister but appeared to rule out a second term on Thursday, saying he would not "cling to power", after being left politically isolated over violence in the southern province of Basra.

Basra has been at the epicentre of protests that broke out in July before spreading to other parts of the country. Violence flared earlier this month over a growing health crisis, after more than 30,000 people were hospitalised by pollution in the city's water supply.

Protesters flooded the streets for five days, clashing with security forces and torching the provincial headquarters, the Iranian consulate and the offices of armed groups. Twelve demonstrators were killed in the clashes, with rights groups accusing security forces of using excessive force.

Parliament held a special session on September 8 to discuss the crisis, at which the Fatah bloc and the alliance led by the populist cleric Moqtada Al Sadr, which had aligned with Mr Al Abadi, called for him to step down.

Iraq's top Shiite cleric, Ayatollah Ali Sistani, issued a statement on Monday calling for Iraq to appoint a prime minister it has never had before.

The government formation process begins with MPs electing the parliament speaker, a post that traditionally goes to a member of Iraq's Sunni minority, and two deputies. After that, they will have 30 days to elect a new president, a largely symbolic position that traditionally goes to a member of the Kurdish minority. The new president will then have 15 days to ask the largest parliamentary bloc to form a new government.

The new parliament was convened two weeks after election results were ratified on August 19. The ratification was delayed by a partial recount following allegations of electoral fraud. However there was little change in the final results, with Mr Al Sadr's alliance retaining its 54 seats. Mr Al Ameri's bloc, remained in second place with 48 seats, followed by Mr Al Abadi's bloc with 42. Former prime minister Nouri Al Maliki's bloc came in fifth with 25 seats.

Iraq has a proportional system aimed at preventing a slide back into dictatorship following the toppling of Saddam Hussein in the 2003 US-led invasion.