SHAFAQNA (International Shia News Association)- Iraq swore in a new government on Monday to try to bridge the violence-ravaged country’s deep divisions.
The late-night vote in parliament got underway after Kurdish lawmakers, who had threatened to boycott, joined from the cafeteria an hour and a half late.
But key positions, including the defense and interior chiefs, were left open amid controversy over who would fill the roles.
Confirmed as prime minister, Haider al-Abadi said he would nominate candidates for those positions within a week. But the previous government was able to function for years with some cabinet positions unfilled.
The move to form a government took place on a day when Iraqi forces advanced against Islamic State extremists, driving them out of the vicinity of a key hydroelectric dam.
The United States provided air support for the operation, which started Saturday night.
But alongside the military offensive, the United States was pushing for the creation of a new inclusive Iraqi government — incorporating Iraq’s Sunni and Kurdish minorities — that U.S. officials hope will bridge divides and peel away support for the al-Qaeda splinter group.
The Kurdish delegation was a question mark right to the end. The Kurds have several demands, including the right to export their own oil.
The United States sent an emergency delegation to Sulaymaniyah on Monday to meet with the Kurdish regional prime minister, Nechirvan Barzani, in the hope that a last-minute compromise could be reached before time ran out to form a new government, said senior Kurdish officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss ongoing negotiations.
A major sticking point for the Kurds is almost $8 billion in oil-sharing revenue that they said is owed to them since January, when Kurdish officials said Baghdad stopped sending revenue checks. Both Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government have been locked in a years-long dispute over whether the Kurds should be able to make their own deals with oil companies and then send the proceeds to Baghdad.
The Kurdistan government depends on the oil revenue to pay the salaries of its massive bureaucracy as well as its pesh merga forces, which have been battling Islamic State insurgents for weeks. Some of those soldiers, including many on the front lines of the battle, say they have not been paid for months. The lack of payments from Baghdad has also crippled the once-booming Kurdish economy.
The Kurds were also upset that they were offered only three ministries in the current power-sharing deal; they argued that based on their population and influence, they should receive at least five ministerial positions. There are also outstanding questions over how and whether the pesh merga fighting forces should be incorporated into the national Iraqi security forces.
Sunni politicians said that they were attempting to gain assurances regarding their own grievances. Their lawmakers have a “big objection” to Abadi’s proposal to appoint the current transport minister, Hadi al-Amiri, as minister of the interior, said Mohammed al-Khalidi, a Sunni lawmaker. Amiri runs the Badr Organization, a Shiite party and militia.
The interior minister’s post remained empty Monday night.
In Geneva, meanwhile, Zeid Raad al-Hussein, Jordan’s former ambassador to the United Nations and the new U.N. high commissioner for human rights, warned that any nation run by the Islamic State “would be a harsh, mean-spirited house of blood.”
Dedicated efforts are urgently needed to protect religious and ethnic groups, children — who are at risk of forcible recruitment and sexual violence — and women, who have been the targets of severe restrictions,” Hussein told the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva in a hard-hitting maiden speech.
The renewed U.S. attacks represent a sharp escalation of a U.S. military campaign that began Aug. 8, when President Obama ordered the Pentagon to intervene in Iraq to stem the rapid advance of the Islamic State, a Sunni extremist group that has swept across the north and west of the country.
Obama, in an interview Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” said it was time for stepped-up efforts against the Islamic State, which would require additional resources in the region.
“There’s going to be a military element to it,” he said. “And what I want people to understand, though, is that over the course of months, we are going to be able to not just blunt the momentum of ISIL. We are going to systematically degrade their capabilities. We’re going to shrink the territory that they control. And, ultimately, we’re going to defeat them.” ISIL stands for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, one of the Islamic State’s previous names.
While the Islamic State’s gains in and around the northern Iraqi city of Mosul have garnered more attention in recent months, the al-Qaeda splinter group with a reputation for brutality has also been consolidating its gains in Sunni-dominated Anbar province since seizing control of its two major cities in January.
Brig. Gen. Abdulwahab al-Saidi, the Iraqi special forces commander for Anbar, said the ground offensive was launched about 6 a.m. after U.S. jets began their campaign Saturday night. Iraqi special forces called in targets for U.S. airstrikes, he said.
The targets are outlying villages and towns controlled by the Islamic State, including Barwana, less than a mile outside Haditha on the eastern bank of the Euphrates River. From there, militants have been attempting to push north to the city and its dam, which stretches more than five miles across the river.
State media reported that Iraqi forces retook Barwana on Sunday afternoon, but the fluidity of the situation was underscored when the province’s governor, Ahmed al-Dulaimi, and a local leader toured the newly secured territory.
A mortar round landed about 15 feet from the two politicians as Saidi escorted them, the special forces commander said. Both men were injured by shrapnel and airlifted to Baghdad, but the injuries were not life-threatening, officials said.
The expansion of the U.S. strikes comes as the White House and Pentagon are putting together plans for a broader and more extensive military campaign against the Islamic State.
U.S. officials said Saturday’s airstrikes around Haditha were conducted under Obama’s previous authorization of action to prevent humanitarian disasters and civilian massacres. Had the dam fallen into extremist hands, they said, Shiite areas to the south would be at risk of flooding.
Like much of Anbar, the area around the dam was the scene of heavy fighting throughout the U.S. occupation, ending only when Sunni tribes in the area turned on al-Qaeda-
affiliated fighters and formed U.S.-supported tribal militias.
Sheik Ahmed Abu Risha, leader of the Sunni tribal Awakening movement that fought al-Qaeda alongside U.S. troops, called for a wider air campaign.
“We have been partners with the U.S. in fighting terrorists since 2006,” he said. “We need this support.”
But senior U.S. officials have stressed the need for a parallel political track, expressing hope that if Haider al-Abadi, Iraq’s prime-minister-designate, can form an inclusive government, some Sunni tribal leaders chafing under harsh Islamic State rule will rise up to fight the extremists.
Abadi has until Wednesday, when a 30-day constitutionally mandated deadline expires, to form a new government. A parliament session has been called for Monday evening, when lawmakers are expected to vote on the new lineup. If an agreement cannot be reached, it will deepen Iraq’s political crisis, forcing wrangling over a new candidate for prime minister.
Officials from U.S. Central Command, which oversees military operations in the Middle East, said that a mix of fighter and bomber aircraft carried out four attacks Saturday near the dam. The strikes, they said, destroyed five Humvees that had been captured by Islamic State militants from Iraqi security forces, another vehicle and a checkpoint.
U.S. officials said all of the aircraft exited the area safely. Central Command did not specify what types of aircraft were deployed or where they flew from.
U.S. warplanes returned to the vicinity of the Haditha dam Sunday, carrying out five more airstrikes and destroying several Islamic State Humvees and other vehicles, the officials said.
In remarks to reporters Sunday during a visit to Tbilisi, Georgia, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel called the Haditha dam “a critically important facility” and said the strikes “are very much in line with what President Obama said were the guiding principles of military action in Iraq.”
Before Saturday, the U.S. military had conducted 133 airstrikes against Islamic State forces, all in northern Iraq. The bulk were carried out to help Kurdish and Iraqi government troops retake control of the Mosul dam, the country’s biggest, which holds back the Tigris River but had been captured by the Islamic State in early August.
Whitlock reported from Tbilisi, and Jaffe reported from Irbil, Iraq. Daniela Deane in Rome, Mustafa Salim in Baghdad and David Nakamura in Washington contributed to this report.