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Iraq haggles over new president as violence rages

Iraqi lawmakers were to choose a new president for their ailing country Wednesday (July 23) as air strikes, suicide car bombs and summary executions yielded their daily grim crop of bodies.

BAGHDAD: Iraqi lawmakers on Wednesday (July 23) postponed choosing a new president for their ailing country while air strikes, suicide car bombs and summary executions yielded their daily grim crop of bodies. Parliament adjourned without even broaching the election of a new head of state and agreed to meet again on Thursday, their last chance to pick a new leader before the week-long Eid al-Fitr Muslim holiday.

A government air raid on the jihadist-held town of Sharqat nearly 300 kilometres northwest of Baghdad killed at least three women and a child, a senior army official told AFP. Police and medical sources in the town said another four people were killed in the strike, which destroyed the municipality building and a house in an area believed to shelter Islamic State (IS) fighters.

Civilians have been paying a heavy price for the government's aerial campaigns against the group, which conquered large swathes of Iraq's west and north in a devastating offensive last month. According to a report released by Human Rights Watch on Wednesday but before the latest strike, at least 75 civilians have died in similar raids since June 6 in four cities, including Sharqat.

'AWFUL TOLL'

"The government's air strikes are wreaking an awful toll on ordinary residents," HRW's deputy Middle East director Joe Stork said in a statement. The New York-based watchdog was particularly critical of the government's targeting of hospitals in militant-controlled areas and of the use of barrel bombs on the rebel city of Fallujah.

Another government air strike Wednesday damaged a hospital complex in the main IS hub of Mosul, causing no casualties, a resident and a hospital worker told AFP. The bodies of eight soldiers and allied militiamen executed the day before were found just north of Samarra, a Sunni-dominated city home to one of Shiite Islam's most important shrines.

Despite the billions of dollars poured into training and equipment by the United States during its seven-year occupation, Iraq's million-strong army intially disintegrated when IS fighters attacked on June 9 and captured Mosul, the country's second city. Their advance stopped before they could reach Baghdad, but jihadist cells have continued to wreak havoc there with bomb attacks mostly targeting the police force.

The toll of a suicide car bomb blast against a police checkpoint guarding the entrance to Baghdad's mainly Shiite neighbourhood of Kadhimiyah on Tuesday rose to 32, according to medical sources.

'DANCING IN BLOOD'

Last month's Sunni militant offensive led to the proclamation of a "caliphate" straddling Iraq and Syria by the Islamic State, once an Al-Qaeda offshoot that now appears to have outgrown the network founded by Osama bin Laden. The onslaught plunged Iraq into its worst crisis in years and exacerbated ethno-sectarian tensions that had already claimed thousands of lives this year alone.

Iraq's Shiite prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki has cast himself as a commander seeking to preserve the country's unity but critics say his own brand of sectarian politics is partly to blame. Many armed groups, religious and political leaders among Iraq's minority Sunni Arab community have sought to distance themselves from IS. But some also see the offensive as protecting the Sunni community from persecution by Shiite-dominated security forces and as their best chance to force Maliki from power.

Maliki, speaking on state television, accused some lawmakers of exploiting chaos in Iraq for their own ends. The problem, he said, was not IS, "but the politicians who play and dance in the blood and remains of Iraqis killed." The rebuke was a thinly veiled attack on Sunni politicians he sees as sympathetic to the insurgent group, and to Kurds who used last month's security vacuum to seize disputed towns and oil fields they long coveted.

Deputies were gathered in parliament Wednesday with the election of a new president next on their agenda but progress in renewing the country's fractious government has been slow and halting. The lawmakers spent the session discussing the 2014 national budget, almost eight months into the year, and eventually adjourned the session until Thursday.

Whoever succeeds the 80-year-old Jalal Talabani, who returned last week from 18 months of medical treatment in Germany to serve out his tenure on home soil, will have limited powers. But the person chosen could reveal what alliances were formed in the political horse-trading of the past weeks and give a hint of who could become the next prime minister.

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