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Iraq parliament fails to aid crisis

Hopes for the quick formation of a new Iraqi government have been dashed after the first session of parliament failed to make progress.

The session was forced to disband after less than two hours when minority Sunnis and Kurds walked out.

The deadlock came as a militant offensive grinds on in large parts of Iraq and neighbouring Syria and the United Nations said civilian casualties set a record high in June.

Over the past three weeks, fighters from the al Qaida breakaway group Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis) have spearheaded an offensive that has plunged Iraq into its deepest crisis since 2011.

The Sunni militant group's advance appears to have eased as it bumps up against majority Shiite areas and leaders seek to consolidate control of territory already in hand.

The militant onslaught has tapped into deep-seated grievances among the country's Sunni minority with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Shiite-led government.

It has made the formation of a new government that can hold the country together and confront the threat a pressing concern.

Acting speaker Mahdi al-Hafidh ended the proceedings after most of the 328-member legislature's Sunni and Kurdish lawmakers did not return following a short break, depriving parliament of a quorum.

The entire session, from the opening national anthem to Mr al-Hafidh's final words, lasted less than two hours.

The impasse, which was largely expected despite intense pressure to make a deal, prolongs days of intense jockeying as political blocs try to decide on a new prime minister, president and speaker.

The country's top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, urged lawmakers last week to agree on the three posts before today's meeting in hopes of averting months of wrangling that could further destabilise the country.

The main sticking point is the job of prime minister, which holds the main levers of power. Under an informal system, Iraq's prime minister is chosen from the Shiite community, the president from the Kurdish minority and the speaker of parliament from the Sunni community.

Al-Maliki, who has held the post since 2006, has come under intense pressure to step aside. Sunnis and Kurds, both of whom accuse him of breaking promises and attempting to monopolise power, are demanding he be replaced.

But Mr al-Maliki has shown no willingness to quit. His bloc won the most votes in the April elections, which traditionally would give him first crack at forming a new government.

But the current crisis in Iraq has altered political calculations and many of Mr al-Maliki's former allies, and even key patron Iran, have begun exploring alternatives to replace him.

He has a track-record of outmanoeuvring his rivals to retain power and is a political survivor. But he needs allies to keep the job, setting the stage for what could be a drawn-out negotiation process.

Sunni MP Hamid al-Mutlaq said the Sunnis walked out of parliament because they feel they need more time to reach a "serious understanding with others on how to run this country and change the course that has led the country to the current disaster".

He said: "We do not want only to discuss the distribution of posts and the names of the candidates. Rather, we think we need to discuss how to change the behaviour of the failing government.

"We did not want to give some people the chance to make the parliament session a race for posts. The fate of the country is more important than the post trophies or the names of possible candidates."

The tensions have also brought to the fore the deeper fissures that run through Iraq, including among its sectarian and ethnic groups - even in parliament.

Before the brief session concluded, Kurdish lawmaker Najiba Najib called upon the government to end "the embargo imposed on Kurdistan region which did not receive its share in the budget since February".

Then as the lawmakers filed out, a Shiite lawmaker from the al-Maliki bloc, Khazim al-Sayadi, shouted: "We will crush with our shoes the heads of those who downed the Iraqi flag," apparently referring to Kurdish forces.

Those forces have moved into disputed territories south of their autonomous zone after security collapses amid the militant offensive.

The self-ruling northern Kurdish region and central government in Baghdad have been at loggerheads over a range of issues, among them the city of Kirkuk and rights to develop natural resources.

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