Iraq's parliament failed on Sunday to break a damaging political deadlock that is holding up the formation of new government, making no progress on choosing new leaders who could help hold the nation together and confront the Sunni militant blitz that has drawn to within 80 kilometers (50 miles) of Baghdad.
After a brief session lasting about 30 minutes, parliamentary officials delayed until Tuesday their efforts to reach agreement between the country's Shi'ite, Sunni and Kurdish politicians on the posts of prime minister, president and parliamentary speaker.
The international community has pressed lawmakers to put their differences aside, while the United Nations has warned of chaos if the political impasse drags on for too long.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whose State of Law coalition is the largest individual list in parliament, is seeking a third term but faces opposition from Sunnis and Kurds, who say he has ruled for the Shi'ite majority at the expense of minority communities. Even rival Shi'ite parties wish to unseat Maliki.
The political impasse has been given added urgency by the Islamist-led insurgency that swept through Sunni provinces of northern Iraq last month and was only stemmed within a hundred miles from the capital. The fall of northern Sunni cities has encouraged Maliki's opponents to try to force his departure.
The disagreement over Maliki's future appeared to be blocking progress on the other political posts.
Hopes had been raised that lawmakers might at least vote on a speaker of parliament after Sunni blocs announced late Saturday that they had agreed on a candidate for the post, Salim al-Jubouri, a moderate Islamist.
But acting parliament speaker Mahdi al-Hafidh was forced to adjourn Sunday's session after just 30 minutes, he said, “due to the absence of any agreement on the names of the nominees for the three posts.”
“There are still deep differences,” he said. “We need more discussions to agree on the names.”
Sunni politicians accused Maliki of effectively torpedoing their proposal.
“We have presented our candidate for speaker and done what we should do,” said outgoing speaker Osama Nujaifi. “We hold the other blocs responsible for the delay.”
“Once we manage to complete the democratic process to form the government this would help to stop the great destruction happening in Iraq which is jeopardizing the country's unity.”
However, the names aren't the only point of contention. There is also disagreement on whether to choose the speaker, president and prime minister individually, or to agree to all three as a sort of package deal - which has been the case in the past.
Under an informal arrangement that took hold after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, the speaker's chair goes to a Sunni, the presidency to a Kurd and the prime minister's post to a Shiite. The greatest disagreement is over prime minister, the most powerful position in the country.
The U.N. special envoy to Iraq, Nickolay Mladenov, said the country could plunge into chaos if parliament fails to move forward on a government in Sunday's session.
Violent deaths last month reached more than 2,400 - a level comparable to the worst of the bloodshed seen during Iraq's 2005-2008 sectarian war.
Biden on Iraq
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden talked on Saturday with Masoud Barzani, president of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region, and discussed the need for the quick formation of a government and peaceful resolution of territorial disputes, the White House said.
With politics in Baghdad paralyzed, and Maliki continuing in a caretaker role, the fighting has raged on.
Sunni Islamist insurgents attacked a town north of Baghdad on Sunday, seizing local government buildings and killing at least six people, including two police officers.
Officials say the assault on Dhuluiya, about 50 miles north of the capital, began early Sunday.
Government forces had retaken Dhuluiya last month after it had been overrun by the militants, but a new drive toward Baghdad appears to be underway.
Iraqi officials said militants in 50 to 60 vehicles stormed the town at 3.30 am (0030 GMT), taking the mayor's office and municipal council building and fighting to take control of the police station.
The police and witnesses said local police and tribes were battling the militants in Dhuluiya on Sunday. They said four policemen were killed in the fighting, as well as two militants and two civilians.
Insurgents led by the al-Qaida offshoot Islamic State seized swaths of Iraq's northern provinces in a two-day offensive last month and have also consolidated their grip in western Iraq where they have been fighting since the start of the year.
Overnight, an audio recording emerged that is purportedly from the one-time deputy of executed dictator Saddam Hussein called on Iraqis to join efforts to "liberate" the country and praised the offensive by Sunni militants.
The voice recording released on a website loyal to Saddam's ousted Baath Party was said to have been made by Ezzat Ibrahim al-Douri, the most senior member of his entourage still at large following Saddam's 2003 overthrow by a U.S.-led invasion force.
Although elderly and reported to have been in poor health, Douri is believed to lead the Baathist militant group the Naqshbandi Army, one of several groups which supported the al-Qiada offshoot the Islamic State.
"Join the ranks of the rebels who liberated half the country," said the voice on the recording, which resembled previous tapes released in Douri's name, the Associated Press reported.
"The liberation of Baghdad is around the corner. Everyone should contribute, to the extent of his ability, to complete the liberation of the beloved country, because there is no honour or dignity without its liberation."
Some information for this report provided by Reuters, AP and AFP.