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Iraq running out of time for political unity

The US and UN have sharply criticised Iraqi leaders, warning time is running out after chaos in parliament despite calls for unity in the face of a Sunni militant offensive.

BAGHDAD: The US and UN have sharply criticised Iraqi leaders, warning time is running out after chaos in parliament despite calls for unity in the face of a Sunni militant offensive.

Political rifts were plainly on display at the opening of the new Council of Representatives, which world leaders had hoped would approve a new government to confront the jihadist-led alliance that has overrun parts of five provinces.

As Iraq struggles to make political or military progress, the head of a powerful jihadist group urged professionals to flock to help its newly proclaimed pan-Islamic state.

Baghdad on Wednesday sought to press hurriedly bought Russian warplanes into service to help break the military stalemate with insurgents whose advance has displaced hundreds of thousands of people.

Tuesday's parliament session, the first since April elections ended in chaos with many Sunni and Kurdish deputies staying away that the quorum was lost and a speaker could not be elected.

Washington quickly warned that "time is not on Iraq's side", with State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf calling for "extreme urgency".

UN special envoy Nickolay Mladenov said Iraqi politicians "need to realise that it is no longer business as usual".

Under a de facto agreement, the premier is a Shiite Arab, the speaker Sunni Arab and the president a Kurd.

Kurdish lawmaker Najiba Najib interrupted efforts to select a new speaker, calling on the government to "end the blockade" and send withheld budget funds to Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region.

Kadhim al-Sayadi, an MP in Shiite premier Nuri al-Maliki's bloc, responded by threatening to "crush the heads" of the Kurds, whose regional leader Massud Barzani told the BBC they would hold an independence referendum within months.

Some Sunni MPs walked out at the mention of the Islamic State (IS), the jihadist group leading the anti-government offensive in Iraq.

Presiding MP Mahdi Hafez said the legislature would reconvene on July 8 if leaders were able to agree on senior posts.

Iraq has bought more than a dozen Sukhoi warplanes from Russia and has touted the arrival of the 10 it has received so far, releasing video of some of the camouflage-painted jets in flight.

Baghdad has said it aims to begin using them for combat operations on Wednesday.

At least five are Su-25 ground attack jets, which will be used to oust Sunni Arab insurgents from a string of captured towns and cities.

Iraqi forces initially wilted before the militant onslaught but have since performed more capably, albeit with limited success in offensive operations.

However, the cost has been high. Nearly 900 security personnel were among 2,400 people killed in June, the highest figure in years, according to the United Nations.

Loyalists are battling militants led by the IS, which on Sunday declared a "caliphate", an Islamic form of government last seen under the Ottoman Empire.

The group also ordered Muslims worldwide to pledge allegiance to their chief.

The announcement is an indicator of IS confidence, with its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi even calling for skilled professionals to join the cause, and marks a move against Al-Qaeda, from which the group broke away.

On Tuesday, the Pentagon said that the nearly 500 US troops sent to Baghdad to bolster security are equipped with Apache attack helicopters and small unarmed surveillance drones.

The American security contingent will concentrate on safeguarding access to Baghdad airport and the embassy, a senior defence official who requested anonymity told AFP.

Maliki seems increasingly to be on the way out, with his bid for a third term in tatters despite his bloc winning by far the most seats in April.

He has come under fire from all three of Iraq's major religious and ethnic communities for alleged sectarianism, side-lining partners and over a marked deterioration in security that culminated in the militant offensive erupting on June 9.

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